Just as expected, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas stole the show on Saturday, though not as they normally do.
While Joey Logano scored an impressive comeback victory, rallying from early-race contact with Greg Biffle to hold off Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards after Edwards spun his tires on a late-race restart, it was the No. 18 team that made the bigger headlines. With Kyle Busch ailing from the flu, the series points leader exited his car after only 36 laps, turning it over to relief driver Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, after contending for the win late in the No. 18, ended up wrecking with Biffle while battling for the lead, turning in a 31st-place finish that dropped them to within 155 points of second-place Edwards.
Meanwhile, Edwards enjoyed a third-place run that, while not a victory, was perhaps the most stout performance the No. 60 car has had on an intermediate track thus far in 2009. And with momentum on their side and Lowe’s Motor Speedway next on the schedule, the chance for the “Sprint Cup Showdown,” as the Sporting News coined it for the NNS title, could actually come to fruition in the next few weeks.
Though the race was on a two-miler, tempers for many flared as if it was a short-track event. Hamlin was obviously irked about his incident, firing blame at Keselowski after his No. 88 Chevrolet had pushed up the track towards the No. 18 prior to the wreck with Biffle. Logano’s father Tom also had his hard card pulled after confronting Biffle about contact with his son early in Saturday’s race, setting off a verbal altercation.
The race featured a surprisingly high 10 cautions that while largely were for debris, also included a number of hard wrecks. In addition to Biffle and Hamlin’s tangle late, lap 126 saw two separate wrecks involving five cars occur simultaneously on the backstretch. Justin Allgaier made contact with Brendan Gaughan trying to thread a needle, while John Wes Townley couldn’t handle three-wide and collected Jason Leffler and Michael McDowell in the resulting spin. Remarkably, none of the yellows were for hot dog wrappers blowing in the wind.
There were a lot of faces that one wouldn’t expect to make waves at an intermediate race that found homes in the top 15 by race’s end. In addition to Keselowski scoring another top-five finish while mixing it up with the best the Cup Series has to offer, right behind him was Michael Annett, another car without sponsor decals, scoring a sixth-place finish that was his career-best. There has been no word yet on what the future holds in terms of sponsor dollars or a ride for one of the NNS’ most improved drivers in 2009. One can only hope that Annett doesn’t end up having to start 2010 like Todd Bodine did with Germain’s truck team, cobbling together a sponsorship package at the track or facing the threat of not being able to race.
Veterans Jason Keller and Mike Bliss finished 10th and 13th, respectively, driving for single-car Nationwide operations and again begging the question… why exactly don’t these longtime series regulars have rides for next year locked up? Or sponsors?
And let’s not forget JD Motorsports, who like last week had both of their cars run very well – except this time, both got the finishes to show for it. Mike Wallace finished on the lead lap in the top 15, while the team’s current No. 0 driver Jeremy Clements scored a career-best NNS finish of 12th in a race his team wasn’t even scheduled to run. The last time JDM put two cars in the top 15? I’m not sure it’s ever happened. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the first or 50th time, Saturday was by far the best day of 2009 for one of Nationwide’s smallest full-time operations.
After a Cinderella start to his tenure with the K-Automotive organization that saw him deliver multiple top-10 finishes, McDowell has over the last few weeks quickly learned how the other half lives. After failing to qualify for last week’s race at Kansas and being forced to start-and-park his old No. 47 ride just to keep his bid for top 10 in points intact, McDowell was moved at the last minute into K’s No. 26 car, which unlike McDowell’s usual No. 96 ride is locked into the field. Things worked out well until Townley triggered the race’s biggest accident, one that sent McDowell’s unsponsored car into the inside wall on the backstretch. But the loss of points following the 32nd-place finish was nowhere near as calamitous as it was for the team to have to bring home a damaged racecar.
Allgaier had another rough outing himself, both because of himself and others. Early in the race, after nearly spinning his car out in turn 4 (but recovering with a beautiful save), Keselowski misjudged the nose of Allgaier’s No. 12 entering the turn and ended up pinching him into the wall. Allgaier would manage to rebound, slicing back into the top 15 with less than 30 laps to go. However, trying to race three-wide for position on the backstretch, Allgaier forced his car into a hole too small, making contact with Gaughan that both flattened his tires and damaged his right-front fender. Though he still finished 16th, the No. 12 Dodge was capable of far more this Saturday.
Leffler had about as rough a day as the No. 38 team has had in recent memory. Even before the race started, he was forced to the rear after having to change engines. Follow that up with being involved in an incident on lap 84, and then being taken out again later by Townley, and there probably isn’t a driver more happy to be leaving Fontana than Leffler.
As much as I try to stay away from the Cup guys in this column, it has to be said that Joe Gibbs Racing had an ugly ugly day. Kyle Busch had to vacate his seat, and a race-leading car, because of the flu. Hamlin wrecked the championship-leading car in his relief-driving effort, and again in post-race comments could fixate on nothing but his contempt for Keselowski rather than figuring out where he screwed up. And while Logano won the race, his father made a fool of himself, going after Biffle post-race to scold him for making contact with his son, contact that obviously had no bearing on how the race turned out. Even when Kyle’s not on-track, this team is making news because of personnel tirades. Where is the Coach?
Underdog Performer of the Race: Johnny Borneman III. Making only his third start of the year with his own No. 83 team, the longtime West Series veteran had a notable day for a number of reasons. His 19th-place starting spot was the best qualifying effort of his Nationwide Series career. Also, his 22nd-place finish was his career-best in four Fontana starts, and was only the third time he’d ever finished on the lead lap. Hope to see you at Phoenix, Johnny; nice run.
The Final Word
- I’m still ready to give this Nationwide trophy to Kyle Busch, but the stage has been set for Edwards to make some noise. Busch was the class of the field at Lowe’s this spring before the rain jumbled up the finishing order, and Edwards was not on nearly the same page. If the No. 60 can top the No. 18 on Friday night, there is the slightest chance that the season’s final few races might actually have a title chase to them.
- For a track so wide and so long, there was a ton of beating and banging on Saturday.
- I don’t care what NASCAR says, there were NOT 30,000 people in the stands for that race.
- On the matter of relief drivers… JGR did nothing wrong, and I know it’s been part of the sport forever, but relief driving is not a rule I support. Quarterbacks don’t get credit for TD passes the backup throws because he got his finger broken. Soccer players don’t get credit for goals their reliever scored. Why should a driver get credit for laps he didn’t complete? I’ve got no problem with the No. 18 team keeping the owner points of wherever they finish, but why should Busch, any driver, in any situation get points for a race finish they didn’t drive to? Injuries/illness are a part of every sport, they’re either dealt with or the player is benched and misses out on season totals. Though Hamlin must love that role… he fills in for Aric Almirola, he wins. Fills in for Busch, all but wins. In all fairness, Busch did get credited with finishing 31st, which is about where he would have finished even if he had parked for being sick given the plethora of S&P cars at the back of the field.