If there is one thing that has kept Brad Keselowski from challenging Kyle Busch for the Nationwide title in 2009, it has been an inability to keep up on the short run. The No. 88 car has been among the fastest after a few laps… but that’s all it’s been taking for the No. 18 to pull away.
That all changed on Saturday.
Despite having two fresh right-side tires on his Toyota, Busch found himself unable to fend off Keselowski who, after leading the most laps, stormed to the point with eight to go after mounting a furious charge from the exit of turn 3 all the way down the frontstretch. Keselowski then drove away and was never contested en route to his second Nationwide Series victory of 2009, the first race the series had ever run at the Iowa Speedway.
Iowa’s debut race was an absolute smashing success, with nearly 60,000 fans in attendance and even standing room capacity being strained. In addition, the on-track product was a worthy follow-up to last weekend’s stellar race at ORP; side-by-side racing was aplenty, as the new facility lived up to its hype as a driver-designed racetrack. However, with so many in the field not having seen Iowa before there were a number of incidents; in all, 12 cautions slowed the field for a total of 56 laps.
As far as the championship, there was next to no change in the points on Saturday, as the top four in the standings all finished in the top four (Keselowski, Busch, Jason Leffler, Carl Edwards). Busch now holds a 207-point lead over Edwards with 14 races left to go. The big shift came in the owner points instead, as Michael McDowell’s top-10 effort with the No. 26 team moved them into the Top 30, knocking out the No. 07 car after Mike Harmon finished 43rd. That’s a huge boon for the unsponsored group as they head to next week’s road course race at Watkins Glen.
How about that McDowell? After running out of sponsor dollars at JTG Daugherty Racing, McDowell has been playing musical chairs, doing everything he can to stay in the driver’s seat and up in driver points. This weekend, he made his debut with K-Automotive in place of Brian Keselowski; and man, did he deliver. McDowell ended up delivering the No. 26 crew their first top-10 qualifying effort of the season, and after recovering from an early spin scored their first top-10 finish as well. The eighth-place run was just another example of not just this young man’s talent but the Keselowskis’ aptitude for short-track setups as well (Brian has in past seasons scored top-15 runs at Memphis and ORP with this operation). Most important of all, McDowell got the team into the Top 30 in owner points, meaning that he will not have to race his way into Watkins Glen this coming weekend. A huge result for both McDowell and the No. 26 squad….
Speaking of a sponsor-stripped driver performing, add Kelly Bires to that list. Unlike most weekends where NNS fans have seen the talented prospect start-and-parking for Phil Parsons’s carpetbagging effort, this weekend he had a sponsored ride… and drove like he deserved it. Bires ran up front all day and finished fifth, his first top five finish since Nashville back in April. Another driver strapped for a ride, Scott Lagasse Jr. scored his fourth top-10 finish of the season on Saturday with his ninth-place effort, hopefully giving CJM Racing another moment of pause as to why they’re cutting such a promising rookie loose.
The Nationwide veterans weren’t too shabby this weekend, either. Jason Keller and Kenny Wallace took sixth and seventh, two drivers scoring top-10 finishes they badly needed. Keller’s No. 27 team has started showing improvement after a late-spring slide, while Wallace built some momentum on the heels of securing sponsorship for the Montreal road race from… 5,000 fans.
Finally, Stephen Leicht won the Comeback Kid award for rebounding after being caught up in a wreck to finish 10th.
Justin Allgaier may have led 35 laps and finished in the top 15 at Iowa, but his performance was a departure from the collected track presence he has demonstrated for much of his rookie season. Allgaier was involved in two separate incidents late in the race, one that sent Austin Dillon into the wall (the second wreck for the RCR prospect not of his making) and a second that saw Allgaier, Steve Wallace and Erik Darnell all wadded up after the No. 12 pushed up the track while running in the lead pack late.
Speaking of Darnell, it’s been a rough week for the Roush development driver. After hearing this week that fellow development drivers Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would be racing full-time in the Nationwide Series in 2010 without any announcement regarding his future, Darnell ran in the top 10 all day (again), outrunning teammate and race polesitter Stenhouse only to have a top-10 finish taken from him with 15 laps to go. Darnell’s got to be wondering what he has to do to catch a break; he’s scored five top 10s in Nationwide competition this year to Stenhouse’s zero, yet he’s currently on the outside looking in to the same camp he’s driven for since 2006.
Scott Wimmer followed up his strong effort at ORP with another top-10 qualifying effort at Iowa to showcase his short-track talent. Unfortunately, his motor had other plans, as it expired on lap 168 and relegated Wimmer to a 31st-place finish, another inconsistent outing for a No. 5 team that’s struggled to find its stride since becoming a part-time effort.
Whether it was an intentional start-and-park or not, Harmon’s day in the No. 07 car lasted only six laps after going behind the wall early for brake issues. The resulting 43rd-place finish dropped the SK Motorsports No. 07 team out of the Top 30 in owner points for the first time this season, an inevitable outcome as their performance has drastically dropped since removing David Green from the driver’s seat back in May. Pulling a past champion in favor of Harmon and Chase Austin… tell me again why this team is struggling?
Rusty Wallace Incorporated was poised to have a banner weekend at the track their owner built, especially with Steve Wallace coming off the most competitive run of his Nationwide Series career at ORP last week. It didn’t come to fruition, however, at their de facto home track: Brendan Gaughan was caught up in a wreck on lap 109 after contact with Brian Ickler cut his left-rear tire flat, while Wallace tangled with Justin Allgaier late and lost a top-10 finish as a result.
Eight teams start-and-parked on Saturday, sending at least three cars in Shelby Howard, Peyton Sellers and Jack Smith that were planning to actually take part in Saturday’s event to the house. Since our own Tom Bowles has been getting continually blasted for reporting on these teams’ laughable excuses for racing and not offering a solution to the problem, here’s some:
- Pro-rate winnings based on laps completed. And if that’s too strict, set something like a requirement to run at least 40% of the laps run barring a catastrophic incident that’s demonstrably a reason to park (wreck, engine failure) before payment is received.
- Inspect the cars that parked to verify the “problems” they’ve suffered. (For the record, NASCAR suggested back in March that they would do this… only to not follow through).
- Listen to the radios, and don’t award winnings to teams discussing over the radio why they were going to park that day (read: Johnny Chapman and the No. 90 team).
- Stop settling for instructing the media to ignore almost a fifth of the field (in addition to all the regular teams they already ignore) and actually do something to make the racing affordable instead of encouraging teams to run dilapidated efforts just to fill the fields for the TV telecasts. (And yes, NASCAR denies that TV money is tied to full fields, but I’m going to trust the dozen or so Nationwide crew members who have stated that instead of a NASCAR.com article that denies it to be true).
Right now, the start-and-parkers keep making the field because there is nothing preventing them from bringing cars that are set up to literally run 20 laps or so the entire weekend. Make running 20 laps a non-paying venture, and the problem will go away. And to anyone out there who is kidding themselves that the start-and-parkers are doing what they’re doing because they love to race, watch how quick they’d disappear if the paychecks did too.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Benny Gordon. The former USAR Hooters Pro Cup standout has had a rough season transitioning to a part-time Nationwide Series driver, hitting rock bottom after being sent home after Nashville qualifying for a problem with tampered race fuel. Nonetheless, Gordon’s continued to show up when he can with his No. 72 car, and Saturday’s event was his best effort of the year. After three finishes outside the top 30, he turned in a 12th-place result on Saturday that was far more reminiscent of the driver who was a constant threat for the USAR Pro Cup crown. Also notable was Gordon’s narrowly dodging a number of incidents on the track to stay in contention all day long.
The Final Word
Brad Keselowski’s comments in victory lane included the statement that Iowa “should have a Cup race.” After seeing the level of competition that took place on this state-of-the-art track Saturday, it’s hard to argue with that from a racing perspective. Just like ORP last weekend, there was side-by-side racing aplenty, and a number of grooves for drivers to choose from as they made their laps. The facility was absolutely beautiful, and one look at the grandstands spoke volumes as to the fan base supporting this track. Rusty Wallace claimed that 60,000 fans were there… and he wasn’t exaggerating.
Iowa’s future is certainly a bright one, and its debut race was just another example of how short-track racing is all that’s needed to promote good stock car racing. For the last two weeks, it hasn’t mattered that the title chase in this series is all but decided, because the racing has been exciting again. And with the Cup Series bogged down on intermediate circuits with a car that can’t pass, there hasn’t been a better show for race fans to watch than the Nationwide circuit in recent weeks. This isn’t rocket science, people… short-track racing is the answer to just about every problem plaguing this series and big-time stock car racing in general. The packed grandstands spoke volumes as to that for the second week in a row.
In all reality, Iowa’s probably still several years from a Cup race; but if they wanted to give this venue a second Nationwide date for 2010, I’m all for it.