After a night of domination by Kyle Busch last week at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the Kroger on Track for the Cure 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park by contrast was a race that several wheelmen could have won as the lead was swapped by an event-record eight drivers. In the last standalone Nationwide event of the year that featured only five Sprint Cup regulars (Carl Edwards, Busch, Matt Kenseth, David Reutimann and Michael McDowell), this promised to be the best chance for the Nationwide-only guys to grab a win before the end of the season. Brad Keselowski did just that, as he made a breathtaking move to take the lead on the second-to-last restart and kept control of a fish-tailing car coming to the stripe after contact with Busch to capture his fifth win of 2009.
Justin Allgaier captured his first career pole in the No. 12 Dodge and would lead the first 34 circuits of the race. However, Mike Bliss, who was making another start in the CJM Racing Camry, overtook him. Bliss would prove to be the guy to beat on the long runs, but on the shorter stints, Edwards and Keselowski among others flexed their muscle at the front of the pack.
The race was certainly not without incident, as the caution flew 14 times and all but one were for accidents. Among the most notable drivers involved were Edwards, who was caught up in but able to continue on from two separate incidents, polesitter Allgaier, who was involved in three accidents, and Keselowski, who appeared to start at least two wrecks.
In the final laps, it was Keselowski who made a daring pass to the inside of Michael Annett, Kenny Wallace and Tony Raines, who stayed out on old tires to get to the front. In the process, points leader Kyle Busch followed in his tire tracks and assumed the second position. One last caution would set up a green-white-checkered finish between them, and it looked as if Keselowski would easily hold off the No. 18 of Busch… until the finish line was in sight. That is when Busch got into the No. 88, turning him sideways… but Keselowski saved it and took home his sixth career Nationwide victory.
The Memphis race was the last event on the “Dash 4 Cash” schedule, which awards bonus money to the winner if he is competing in the series on a full-time basis. Keselowski fits the category, and picked up an additional $25,000 in winnings for his victory.
Bliss, who endured a puzzling firing from Phoenix Racing earlier this year and has pieced together the remainder of the season driving for five different teams, turned in yet another solid performance in the No. 11 Camry. Bliss was at times the fastest car on the track, and came home with a fourth-place finish. In three starts, Bliss has finishes of second, second and fourth while driving for CJM Racing. On paper, it seems like Bliss has finally found a home, but do those in the team’s front office agree?
The Nationwide Series has been the target of criticism over the past several seasons as simply a place for Cup regulars to go and dominate instead of a breeding ground for future NASCAR stars. Well, fans were treated to a little relief on Saturday afternoon as Camping World East participant Matt DiBenedetto made his first Nationwide start in Joe Gibbs’s No. 20 while Richard Boswell made his first start in the series in Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevy. Speaking of the No. 5 ride, Landon Cassill, the defending Rookie of the Year who drove that car in 2008, made his first start of 2009 in the No. 1 Chevy. Both DiBenedetto and Boswell had solid top-five qualifying runs but ran into problems during the race. DiBenedetto was involved in a chain-reaction accident, while Boswell was black-flagged for a loose hood. Cassill also struggled throughout much of the afternoon after sitting on the sidelines for nearly a full year of competition. However, by end of the day, all three made nice recoveries as Cassill, DiBenedetto and Boswell finished 10th, 14th and 23rd, respectively.
The worst thing that could possibly happen to a start-and-park team is to wreck during the race before they retire. If these teams can’t afford a new set of tires, how can they possibly fix a smashed up racecar? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Chase Miller and his unsponsored Derrike Cope Dodge team. On lap 9, John Wes Townley’s machine started to drop oil on the track. When the drivers entered turn 1 behind him, grip was nowhere to be found. Cars started spinning, and the only place for Miller’s No. 73 machine to go was right into the side of Stephen Leicht’s No. 29 Chevy. Miller was forced to retire earlier than anticipated with heavy damage to the front end of his car.
Keselowski may have won the race, but he did not make many friends along the way. On lap 29, the No. 88 made contact with and spun Allgaier, although it appeared as though the polesitter turned down where there was no open track to go. Then, later in the race the JR Motorsports driver got into Edwards, sending the No. 60 into the spin cycle. With just a handful of laps remaining, Keselowski took no prisoners as he dove underneath several cars going into turn one to take the lead. Many applaud aggressive driving, saying that we don’t see it enough in the sport. But will it come back to bite this young talent as his career progresses? Time will tell.
On lap 167, Eric McClure received a bump from the No. 96 of Michael McDowell on the exit of turn 3. The contact sent McClure’s No. 24 to the right, where he clipped Kenny Wallace. His Chevy continued on, hitting the outside retaining wall even harder and sustaining heavy damage. A red flag was thrown to allow rescue workers to remove McClure from his car as anxious spectators looked on. After several minutes, the 30-year-old emerged from the car with assistance, visibly in pain but OK. Soon thereafter, NASCAR officials confirmed that the driver was fine despite the tough hit he endured. The entire incident and the fortunate result was yet another endorsement for soft walls.
Steve Wallace has had some nasty late-race luck of late, and Saturday was no different. The No. 66 was a fixture in the top 10 for virtually the entire afternoon and was poised for a top-five finish until contact from Kenseth in the closing laps sent Wallace spinning. He brought his machine onto pit road for repairs, but with so few laps left, a 20th-place finish was all this team had to show for their efforts. After being taken out by someone else’s mistake once again, the car owner and Steve’s father, Rusty Wallace, who is no stranger to raging tempers himself, remarked that he couldn’t blame his son for throwing his helmet this week. The younger Wallace angrily approached the 2003 Sprint Cup champion after the race and was promptly called to the NASCAR hauler afterwards.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Scott Wimmer. The last few years for Wimmer have certainly had their ups and downs. After a failed Sprint Cup attempt in the Bill Davis Racing entry earlier in the decade, Wimmer appeared to have found a home making spot starts for Richard Childress Racing’s No. 29 Chevy in the Nationwide Series in 2007 and 2008. In that time, Wimmer made 46 starts and recorded one victory, 12 top fives, 27 top 10s and one pole. But despite that performance, the driver was passed up for RCR’s fourth Sprint Cup team and was forced to piece together the 2009 season by splitting time between Curtis Key’s No. 40 and JRM’s No. 5 cars. It has not been a great season to date for Wimmer, who is mired in 16th in the points. However, Saturday offered a rare bright spot in a dismal year, as the Wisconsin native qualified on the outside pole and finished seventh for his third top 10 of the season.
The Final Word
- Echoing Brian’s sentiments from last week, CJM Racing – when are you going to sign Bliss? Oh yeah, and if you do, be sure to make improving pit stops a priority in the offseason. Losing spots each time on pit road is not the way to win a race.
- Virtually everyone who follows the series on a regular basis knew that Steve Wallace would be hot after being taken out of the race once again – that is, everybody but ESPN. I’m still puzzled how the network didn’t pick up the confrontation between Wallace and Kenseth until it was just about over. In a sport that has given fans little to cheer about this season, wouldn’t seeing a little controversy have been nice?
- It looks like Tony Eury Jr. has become Hendrick’s new super-sub. He was on top of the pit box for Boswell this week now that his duties for the No. 25 Sprint Cup team are finished for 2009. It will be interesting to see if Eury would much rather be with Hendrick’s “B” team instead of being the main guy for anyone else as he contemplates his options for 2010.
- Kyle Busch did not have a winning car on Saturday, but still fought his way to a second-place finish. Still, the points leader was visibly disappointed after the race. Some may say it’s a product of a guy who is never happy. Others would argue that it is that attitude that has him on top of the points standings.