There were Cup headliners aplenty all day Friday as the Nationwide Series tackled the Bristol Motor Speedway. Early in the week, it was Ryan Newman doing quadruple duty at Bristol. Then it was Brad Keselowski, who wouldn’t confirm or deny that he has signed to drive for Penske Racing in the Cup Series in 2009. That is, until he made contact with soon-to-be teammate Justin Allgaier, flattening his left rear tire and sending the Penske No. 12 car spinning. Then it was Kyle Busch, who took the lead for only a millisecond before Chase Austin made heavy contact and destroyed his No. 18 Toyota. Then it was Carl Edwards, who led 51 laps and was in prime position to make up maximum ground on Busch in the Nationwide title chase.
Perhaps the only Cup regular not to get talked about was David Ragan, won the race.
Ragan did what’s he done practically all season in the No. 6, ran quietly in the top 10, and once the attrition settled down, took the lead from his teammate Edwards on lap 199 and never looked back, securing his second career Nationwide Series trophy. Ragan capped a banner night for Roush Fenway Racing, which had all three of its cars finish in the top five (Edwards was second, Matt Kenseth fifth).
Friday night’s race was marred by a number of wrecks in the first 100 laps, none more notable than on lap 53. Kyle Busch, who had just taken the race lead, was passing the lapped car of Chase Austin when Austin cut a tire and darted down the track straight into Busch’s rear quarterpanel. The resulting contact sent the No. 18 hard into the wall and drew thunderous applause from the huge crowd of over 100,000 that turned out. Busch got back on track later and managed to finish 28th, allowing Edwards and Keselowski (who finished second and third) to close to within 248 and 303 points of the lead, respectively.
For as treacherous a track as Bristol is, a number of the Nationwide Series’ youngsters put together very strong runs on Friday. Leading the pack was Michael Annett, whose eighth-place finish marked his first NASCAR top-10 finish ever on a short track. The run was also indicative of just how far the former hockey player has come in 2009; a driver who was noted in ARCA for his superspeedway prowess, Annett has shown definite progression on the shorter ovals, with finishes of 11th at Iowa and now eighth at Bristol. Assuming that Annett manages to avoid the recent rash of Nationwide regulars getting booted from their rides for no reason, the No. 15 team may well be contending for a win or two before the year closes out.
Another impressive top 10 finisher was Michael McDowell. Seriously, the guy has an average finish of 15.5 driving the No. 26 car! K-Automotive has spent all of 2009 toiling to re-establish themselves in NASCAR, and if the last four races are any indication, they’ve found the driver to do it. A tip of the hat also needs to go to the team’s former driver, Brian Keselowski, for biting the bullet and getting out of the seat to make the calls as a crew chief. The way that the chemistry between he and McDowell seems to be clicking, one has to question why Keselowski is getting back in the No. 26 at Montreal’s road course of all places, relegating McDowell to the team’s start-and-park No. 96. The way things are going, maybe K-Automotive needs to rethink that plan. On second thought, yeah they do.
And let’s not forget Matt Carter, who recovered from a mid-race spin to finish 12th. That’s three top-20 finishes in nine starts in the No. 61 for Carter… more than former driver Brandon Whitt scored in 31 races.
Allgaier was never a short-track slouch during his ARCA days, and after scoring a top five at Bristol in the spring, the Penske development star showed early on Friday night that he had another top-five car under him. That didn’t last long, however, as contact with Keselowski on lap 38 cut down a tire on the No. 12 and sent it into a spin. Allgaier and crew spent the remainder of the race logging laps, getting caught up in multiple additional incidents and leaving with a 27th-place run that was ill-representative of how good the No. 12 car was. Allgaier also lost ground to Steve Wallace in the battle to remain in the top five in Nationwide points.
Another short-track ace, Danny O’Quinn, was making some noise of his own further back in the field. Running in the top 20 and battling to stay on the lead lap, O’Quinn ended up in a wreck after Kevin Harvick spun Trevor Bayne on lap 138, leaving the No. 01 car with nowhere to go at all. The 32nd-place finish was a huge disappointment…and one can’t help but wonder if the frustration of having one of the season’s best runs stripped away like that played a big factor in O’Quinn’s unexpected decision to leave JD Motorsports.
It was terrible to see Scott Lagasse Jr. fail to qualify for this event in the No. 42 car, but Austin quickly made that episode look tame by comparison. Driving a No. 07 car that was already woefully off the pace, Austin reported having a flat tire. Attempting to get out of harm’s way with the leaders coming, Austin and his spotter both woefully misjudged how fast the leaders were coming, and as a result Austin clipped leader Kyle Busch hard, triggering a wreck that also took out Reed Sorenson and caused a lengthy red-flag delay for clean up. Flat tire or not, Austin and the No. 07 team’s error was beyond that of a rookie mistake, completely baffling to a degree that it belongs right up there with Marc Davis‘s pit-road miscue at Nashville earlier this season and Kevin Lepage‘s merging into oncoming traffic at Talladega last April.
Though, to his credit, Austin handled himself following the incident like a veteran. When thrust in front of the TV cameras for the only Nationwide Series coverage that he’s had all season (all it took to get himself on TV was to wreck Kyle Busch… and cause a red flag that left ESPN scrambling to fill time), Austin took complete responsibility for what happened. No other way to say it, he manned up and took the blame, and scored a lot of points in my book for doing so. There’s a lot of drivers much Austin’s senior that could take a page from his book.
Still, if you’re going to wreck somebody, taking out Kyle Busch and the same No. 1 car who unceremoniously gave Mike Bliss the boot isn’t a bad way to go.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Bliss. What more can you say about this guy, he freaking gets the job done behind the wheel. Driving for a team that can’t pay him week to week, Bliss is instead driving for his season (trying to stay in the top 10 in points does wonders for a driver’s end of season points fund check), and Friday night scored a top-15 finish for the No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports operation that was only the fourth such effort for the team in 2009, it’s best short-track performance of the year. Bliss’s solid, steady performance with a car that likely wasn’t a top-15 machine was reminiscent of his seventh-place run back in the Cup night race at Bristol in 2005, then driving the No. 0 for Haas CNC Racing. Bliss undoubtedly needs to be racing full-time, and I hear there’s a seat over at JD Motorsports that needs filling. Might not be a flashy ride… but look at what Kenny Wallace has done with Jay Robinson Racing.
The Final Word
The “new” Bristol looked much like the bullring of old on Friday night, with calamity and carnage aplenty on the high banks of Thunder Valley. While fans rejoiced in Kyle Busch’s troubles and seeing his streak of top three finishes snap, it’s not going to amount to anything substantive. Busch was the fastest car on track when he got wrecked, and is still going to walk away with the Nationwide Series crown in 2009.
That said, the story of the weekend was Keselowski. With rumors rampant that he has signed to drive the No. 12 car for Penske Racing, my feelings are mixed. First, he is certainly ready to make the jump. With nearly three full seasons of NNS competition under his belt, the seasoning has been done. And there’s no doubting his ability to handle pressure… winning the pole and coming back to finish third after an early-race incident with all the pressure of the rumor mill and his perceived status as a lame-duck driver looming was hugely impressive Friday night.
And while I’m thrilled to see one of the Nationwide Series’ most promising and talented drivers getting a Cup shot that he has rightly earned, I can’t help but wonder what Rick Hendrick is thinking letting Keselowski leave the fold. Don’t give me this nonsense that’s there no room over at HMS… Stewart-Haas Racing has two more cars to give, JR Motorsports could go to Cup, hell even Phoenix Racing could get coddled to go full-time with the right amount of incentive. With Mark Martin in the twilight years of his career (well, maybe not, considering he can’t seem to decide when to let go) and Jeff Gordon certainly showing his age as well, it seems really short-sighted of Hendrick not to pull some strings and keep his most talented prospect in his garages. I also can’t help but wonder why Keselowski would leave the stability and strength of Hendrick Motorsports to go to Penske Racing and a No. 12 car that is now the third-rung car in that camp. Keselowski has done too many things right to get here, and the last thing I want to see is the No. 12 car chew him up and spit him out.
Keselowski isn’t the only Nationwide Series fixture departing next season. Long-time Nationwide Series sponsor Kimberly-Clark and its Kleenex brands announced that they will be leaving Baker/Curb Racing’s No. 27 car to join forces with Marcos Ambrose in the Cup ranks next season, leaving Jason Keller and one of the most stalwart Nationwide independent teams without a sponsor for 2010. For that outfit, this could not come at the worst time, as the team finds itself still in the midst of a disappointing performance slump (Keller finished 16th on Friday). With younger drivers posting better results (see McDowell) proving unable to secure sponsor dollars, I’m concerned for this outfit.
Though after seeing racing as good as we did Friday night, why wouldn’t anyone want to sponsor these race teams?