Saturday saw Richard Childress Racing’s Nationwide program for the first time in 2009 resemble the juggernaut that Kevin Harvick took to nine wins and the 2006 Series crown. This time, however, the driver was Clint Bowyer, who in leading the final 83 laps scored a convincing win at Dover in the first of a three-race stint that the Cup regular is supposed to run to help turn around the performance of the team’s No. 29 car.
Though listening to Bowyer, you’d never know he was brought in for performance reasons. When asked why he ended up driving this race in favor of development prospect Stephen Leicht, Bowyer’s response was “It’s my name on the car,” referring to a wager he won earlier in the year between fellow Holiday Inn drivers Jeff Burton and Leicht.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Bowyer, however, as a disappointing qualifying run mired him in traffic early on. For the first half of the race, it was all Kyle Busch, who after winning the pole by well over three tenths of a second proceeded to lead the first 80 laps of Saturday’s event (he finished fourth).
The later stages of the race were marked by two events. One was a resurgent Mike Bliss, who stormed through the top five late to record a second-place finish for CJM Racing’s No. 11 car, his best run since being released from Phoenix Racing and the best result in CJM’s team history. The biggest fireworks came after the race however, on pit road. After a late-race incident that saw Denny Hamlin spin after coming down across Brad Keselowski‘s bumper, Hamlin confronted Keselowski and crew member Tony Eury Jr. immediately following the checkered flag, nearly sparking a melee similar to the one between the two drivers at Charlotte last May.
The points race remained stagnant following the event, with Carl Edwards (who finished fifth) 211 markers back, and Keselowski 297 behind Kyle Busch.
Watching Bliss in the media center following his runner-up finish, one would never know that his job is in flux from week to week (“If the phone doesn’t ring on Monday, Tuesday’s pretty depressing” is how he put it). Bliss was jovial, relaxed, and almost smug in his grin; he had done an awesome job on Saturday, and he knew it. Bliss qualified in the top five, and never fell back further than sixth at any point on Saturday. Further, his feedback allowed for the No. 11 team to make spot-on adjustments to his car that made Bliss a force on the longer runs. Bliss was actually running down eventual race winner Bowyer prior to the final yellow on lap 191, and likely would have challenged for the win had a momentary ignition problem (he had to switch to a backup box on the restart) not left him 10 car lengths back quickly following the final green flag on lap 194. Still, Bliss’s search for a new home got a big boost on Saturday.
Keselowski‘s comeback from a car that was running in the back of the top 15 for much of the afternoon to one that was charging through the top five at race’s end was impressive enough, but more so was his attitude after being accosted by Hamlin after the conclusion of Saturday’s race. Despite being confronted by an established Cup driver for “not knowing how to race,” Keselowski made explicitly clear and without name calling that he was “not going to be pushed around.” And why should he? This is the type of attitude that Nationwide Series regulars should all be taking towards bigger name drivers making NASCAR’s proving grounds their playground. Way to go Brad, this series is going to miss having you as a regular in 2010.
And how about Michael Annett? After wrecking his primary car on his coming up to speed lap during qualifying, the rookie rebounded from starting 42nd to win Rookie of the Race honors with a 13th-place run and a lead lap finish. The result was no fluke either, as Annett was smooth and collected on track for all 200 laps.
Both MacDonald Motorsports and Specialty Racing have enjoyed some stellar runs as independent single-car teams in 2009. Saturday was not one of those runs for either team. Bobby Hamilton Jr., who was visibly frustrated through much of the weekend in the garage with a No. 81 car that couldn’t find its way up the speed charts, struggled to a 28th-place finish that was hampered by possible motor problems; team radio chatter was constantly checking oil and water temperatures, trying to diagnose what had the car puttering so slowly.
Matt Carter and the No. 61 team had much the same trouble, as they were slow off the truck and never got faster. When asked about what was keeping the No. 61 so far off the pace, crew chief Doug Taylor remarked “we’re just really slow.” Carter’s run (he finished in 27th, nine laps down) was further hampered by troubles on pit road; mis-communication during green-flag pit stops around the race’s halfway point led to a delay in the gasman going over the wall, forcing an additional pit stop for the team… and for Taylor to come off his pit box and express vocally his displeasure with some of his crew.
12 cars in Saturday’s field start-and-parked, including seven in the first six laps. Do the math, that’s over 25% of the field. But it’s not a problem right? It’s been around forever, right?
25% of the freaking field for a race didn’t race. That IS a problem.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Morgan Shepherd. The plight of Faith Motorsports is well known, with owner/driver Shepherd laying off his pit crew after failing to qualify for every race since Watkins Glen. That all changed this weekend, as Shepherd timed into Saturday’s field at Dover. And with a makeshift crew that included Herd Racing driver Brett Rowe, former driver Chad Beahr and Faith Motorsports secretary Shannon Feldmann as crew chief, the longtime Nationwide veteran qualified in the top 20 and delivered a 21st-place finish that was his best at Dover since he finished third at the track… in 1988. What’s more, the volunteer, makeshift pit crew that Shepherd had assembled for this race did an admirable job, pulling off a solid two-tire change under green-flag conditions. Frontstretch interviewed Shepherd prior to the Dover race regarding the status of his team (look for it next week), and considering their need to make races, Saturday was a true blessing for the No. 89 bunch.
The Final Word
Yes, the Hamlin/Keselowski dust-up was the big story of the day, and I’ve already published my take on the incident.
My other thoughts following Saturday’s race:
- Bowyer was brought on board the No. 29 car for the next three races to improve the team’s performance. One race in, he won… in a car that Leicht was supposed to drive. This is obviously good news for RCR’s Nationwide Series program, but is it for Leicht? With Bowyer able to turn that car around so quickly, one can’t help but wonder if Childress’s eyes turn away from the performance of the car… and towards the performance of development driver Leicht, whose 2010 plans remain highly fluid.
- Steve Wallace is all of a sudden fifth in the Nationwide points. He finished 12th on Saturday, and even though competitors were wary of racing too close to the driver of the No. 66 (a transmission from Annett’s spotter on lap 67 stated “Let him go, he’ll dump you in a heartbeat”) the progress that Rusty’s son has made in the Nationwide ranks is pronounced. He’ll challenge for a number of wins in 2010.
- Jason Keller scored his first top 10 since Iowa in what has been a bit of a rebound stretch for he and the Baker/Curb No. 27 team. A team searching for a sponsor and driver searching for a ride, the veteran and his team are back up to seventh in points, and were one of only 13 cars to finish on the lead lap Saturday.
- Finally, back to Bowyer and Hamlin. What a dichotomy of the risk/reward of Cup drivers racing Nationwide. For Hamlin, Saturday was the agony, a mistake resulting in a torn-up racecar and a post-race tantrum that likely had JGR’s PR staff burning the midnight oil to gloss over. For Bowyer, it was ecstasy, scoring his first NASCAR win since Daytona in July, a much needed victory for RCR and a confidence booster heading into Sunday’s Cup race with a car he’s confident in. The choice to put a Cup driver in a Nationwide car is always a gamble… and on Saturday the Chase driver lost, the non-Chaser won. It’ll be interesting to see if any big owners take this race to heart…