After Saturday night’s race, even I am willing to put aside the fact that yet again the Nationwide Series ended a race with a 1-2 dose of Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch (though this time, Edwards came out on top). Why? Without a doubt, the Kroger 200 was the most exciting race of the 2009 NNS season, and perhaps the best seen at any level of NASCAR this year.
Edwards managed to score his second win of the 2009 campaign in old-fashioned short-track style. Starting alongside Busch on a lap 174 restart, Edwards went after his fellow title contender, dive-bombing a number of corners and trading some paint until he took the lead for good on lap 178. And while Edwards drove away for the win, the battle for third position was one for the ages, as Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Steve Wallace, Ron Hornaday and Trevor Bayne put on a short-track clinic that had every single one of the 40,000 fans at ORP on their feet. Beating and banging, with drivers going even three-wide on the narrow Indiana oval, watching this pack race hard and manage to avoid wrecking was nothing short of miraculous.
And while Edwards and Busch were the class of the field during the second half of the race, they each dodged a bullet in not having to deal with Wallace and Bayne late in the running. Bayne, who won his first career pole that afternoon, led the first 34 laps until the yellow flag flew for Michael Annett. The pace car got onto the racetrack extremely quickly and in close proximity to the leaders, leading Bayne to slow himself down and Wallace to hit him in the back. Despite the incident clearly being a product of the pace car awkwardly entering the race track, NASCAR maintained that both Bayne and Wallace failed to maintain speed under caution, and sent them back in the pack. The resulting loss of track position proved too much for the youngsters to overcome while taking two top contenders out of the mix for a win (don’t forget Bayne was the quickest car on the track over the final 25 laps).
With Edwards finally managing to get the best of Busch, Rowdy’s lead in the points standings dropped to 192. Keselowski lost more ground with his fourth-place run (he’s now 392 markers out), as did Jason Leffler (finished eighth, 506 points behind).
While the aforementioned incident regarding the pace car kept both Bayne and Wallace from contending for the win late, both of these drivers were convincing in their performances Saturday night. Bayne led the first 34 laps from the pole, having to avoid a wreck even on the first lap when Brad Coleman pushed up the track challenging for the lead in the first corner of the race. And even after being highly frustrated when he was relegated to 17th in the running order after being hit under yellow by Wallace, the MWR development prospect didn’t lose his cool, instead putting his nose to the grindstone and bringing home a solid seventh place finish that was a career-best. As for Wallace, his many detractors are going to cite his hitting Bayne under yellow as evidence that he’s still in over his head. Yeah, right… that incident was solely on the officials and the pace car driver. Anyone that saw Wallace’s drive back into the top five and the way he handled himself in racing aggressively and cleanly with Kenseth and Keselowski late needs to have their head examined if they couldn’t see just how far the youngest Wallace has come since his ugly rookie season a few years back.
Don’t forget the older Wallace as well. Kenny Wallace scored a top 10 in his Jay Robinson Racing No. 28.
Scott Wimmer finally had the type of run he’s been seeking to have in his limited starts with JR Motorsports. Wimmer quietly moved towards the top 10 from the drop of the green flag, but definitely raised some eyebrows on lap 54 with a daring pass of Hornaday for the lead on the treacherous low side of the track. In the end, Wimmer led 39 laps and brought the No. 5 car home ninth, the type of run that the Wisconsin-native needs to keep his name on big-time NASCAR’s radar screen.
Erik Darnell qualified fourth coming off a stellar run at Gateway and was running in the top 10 early in the going before making contact with Brendan Gaughan on the backstretch. The resulting contact, while minor, was enough to cave in the left front fender on his No. 6 Ford, eventually leading to at least one blown tire (Darnell also got loose and hit the wall in turn 2 later in the evening, though the camera angles were inconclusive as to whether a blown tire was responsible). Regardless of the cause, a 29th-place finish was perhaps the lowest point of what has been an impressive rookie NNS campaign for the former Truck Series regular.
Rensi-Hamilton Racing didn’t have a terrible day, but their visit to ORP wasn’t what they were hoping for, either. After qualifying near the back of the pack, Eric McClure was mired in traffic from lap 1, turning in a 23rd-place effort that was two laps off the pace and one that garnered no air-time for the No. 24 car. Even more disappointing was Bobby Hamilton Jr.’s return behind the wheel of the same No. 25 car that he nearly won the 2003 NNS title in. Carrying the same Eckrich sponsorship that saved the Rensi Racing operation in 2008, Hamilton was never a factor in Saturday’s race, finishing with a whimper in 22nd position. There is a chance that the same sponsor could kick in to put Hamilton behind the wheel for a few more races this year, but 22nd-place finishes aren’t going to get the former NNS regular the full-time ride he deserves (say, doesn’t CJM Racing have an opening?)
Speaking of CJM Racing, what the hell is wrong with this team? Firing Scott Lagasse Jr.? For what? (Read more on that topic in this week’s upcoming Nuts for Nationwide feature.) That said, Lagasse was in position to make some serious noise at ORP, qualifying inside the top 10 and motivated to perform and land himself another NNS ride. That top-10 run lasted all of 21 laps, when Keselowski made contact with the left-rear bumper of the No. 11 entering turn 1. The hit slammed Lagasse into the wall and smack into Mike Bliss’s path, who struck the driver’s side of Lagasse’s machine and crippled his own No. 1 car. Lagasse was left with a 37th-place finish and no progress made on finding a new ride for himself.
The other team that had an ugly trip to ORP was nowhere to be seen on race day… because both of their cars missed the race. Brian Keselowski and his No. 26 team suffered their costliest DNQ of the season at a track where the elder Keselowski has scored a top-15 finish before, missing the race while only seven points out of the Top 30 and a locked-in spot in the field. Dennis Setzer also failed to qualify the team’s No. 96 car, surprising seeing as how Setzer nearly won the truck race at ORP the night before.
And Terry Cook parked the third-place car after only 11 laps. Tell me again how this isn’t a problem for the sport?
Underdog Performer of the Race: Aric Almirola. Though Wimmer is the primary driver of the Key Motorsports No. 40 car, Wimmer is out of the seat from time to time to take a ride in the JRM No. 5 entry. And while Wimmer had an impressive run Saturday night, his relief driver, Almirola, gave him a run for his money. Still seeking a new ride to call his full-time home after losing the No. 8 Cup car due to a lack of sponsor dollars, Almirola took advantage of his opportunities Saturday night. After a solid top-10 showing in the Truck race, the former Drive for Diversity graduate delivered a 14th-place finish on the lead lap in the No. 40, the third consecutive top-15 finish for a team that found itself outside the Top 30 for much of the spring. Almirola remarked in his post-race interview after the Truck race Friday that he was gunning to make the most of whatever rides he was able to get this year… Saturday was proof positive.
The Final Word
No remarks on how the NNS title chase is already over, that Cup drivers are dominating even the “opportunity races,” etc.
The Kroger 200 was freaking awesome.
Side-by-side racing never ceased (three- and even four-wide racing on a 0.686-mile oval). Enough beating and banging for even a demolition derby fan. Trading paint for position (Keselowski and Hornaday had a number of altercations on the track that never boiled over, but were really fun to watch). A crowd that was vocal, energetic, and on their feet all night long. And a racetrack that saw 43 drivers taking 43 unique lines around it. It truly was short-track racing at its finest, and a truly energetic showing for a series that has been desperately looking for something to spark it after a number of lackluster shows at Chicago and Gateway.
And it was proof positive that short-track racing is both what the fans want and what NASCAR needs. The bleachers weren’t full at ORP, but proportionally were surprisingly crowded for a standalone Nationwide event. And I’d bet there wasn’t a fan there who left feeling they didn’t get their money’s worth. The racing seen at ORP put even Friday’s truck race (which was a thriller) to shame, doing more credence than any amount of historic recollecting, testing, etc. could do to prove that short tracks are where stock cars need to be racing. I don’t need to say much of anything… the product on the track Saturday night did all the talking necessary.
And what better way to follow up a short-track with race than with another short-track? Bring on Iowa!