Well, no one can accuse Carl Edwards of going down without a fight. With Kyle Busch holding a commanding points lead coming into the two final races of the 2009 season, Edwards drove at Phoenix like he still had a shot. Leading over 100 laps while holding off fellow points challenger Brad Keselowski and a host of other contenders, Edwards scored his fifth win of the year, forcing Busch to wait until he starts at Homestead to officially lock up the series title.
Edwards was the class of the field on Saturday, though he got some help in dealing with his biggest challenger. Denny Hamlin, subbing in for Joey Logano, lead every lap that Edwards didn’t, and was going for the lead on a lap 156 restart when contact between he and nemesis Keselowski sent his No. 20 Toyota spinning in turn 4. The episode took time to develop; Hamlin knocked Keselowski out of the way in turn 2, only to have Keselowski bump him in turn 3 and again battling for position on the exit of turn 4. Hamlin, steamed after the race, went on a tirade (reported on NASCAR Scene) in which he denied ever having wrecked Keselowski and vowing to retaliate next week at Homestead.
Behind Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Reed Sorenson, Clint Bowyer and Keselowski rounded out the top five. Edwards currently holds a 60-point lead over third-place Keselowski in the points, while Mike Bliss delivered another top-10 performance on Saturday, bumping Justin Allgaier out of the top five in the NNS standings.
Bliss might as well get a permanent standing shout-out in this column, the way he’s running in CJM’s No. 11 car. Finishing eighth on Saturday, the result was his fifth top-10 outing in five races with the team. It also moved him into fifth in the Nationwide Series points standings. And no disrespect to Allgaier, who’s had an impressive rookie campaign, but I’d rather see Bliss on stage come season’s end. How can you top his story? A driver released from a full-time ride that he resurrected from the doldrums at Phoenix Racing, one who had to start-and-park a number of races just to keep his season alive, and one who now despite having driven for six teams this year is still knocking on victory lane’s door. There is not a single driver in the garage that has done more in 2009 than Bliss to deserve a seat at the table. Here’s hoping that translates into one more solid run at Homestead next week.
Steve Wallace finished 10th at PIR, his eighth top 10 of 2009 and a career-high for him in a single season. The stat sheet backs up that 2009 has indeed been a career year for a driver who was rightfully chastised at the start of his career for driving like a ping-pong ball with a rocket strapped to it. Those critics need to step back and shut up (and that’s coming from a Ryan Newman fan that knows all too well who Steve’s father is). The younger Wallace has definitely learned how to run longer races and finish them, and come next year should only continue to improve. The No. 66 car will be one to watch in 2010… just like it was on Saturday.
James Buescher and Trevor Bayne are both newcomers that will be seen full-time in 2010, and both looked very deserving of their respective opportunities, both finishing in the top 15. For Buescher, it marked his second consecutive top-15 finish in the No. 1 car, his new home next year. And for Bayne, his 14th-place result was an impressive charge from the field after a subpar qualifying effort left him mired in 37th on the starting grid. It’s good to know there will be at least some talent being developed in NASCAR’s development series next year.
And how about Scott Wimmer‘s solid top-15 showing?
Last week saw Jason Leffler enjoy one of his stoutest runs of the year, one that he backed up with a sixth-place qualifying effort. A good result wasn’t in the cards for the No. 38 team though, as an oil line problem forced the team to pit road under green and left Leffler to finish this race in 27th, 13 laps down. He’s got fourth place in the points for the year locked up, but Saturday was another example of how this campaign hasn’t finished like it’s promising start.
Alex Tagliani parked his backup No. 81 car after only 14 laps following a hard crash in qualifying. No word on whether or not it was a start-and-park or a legitimately broken rear end, but either way the result was not what MacDonald Motorsports was looking for.
10 start-and-parks. Think that’s bad, wait till next year.
And what exactly does Morgan Shepherd have to do to make a race? He’s now missed six of the last 10.
The nastiest incident of the race happened on lap 99, and it involved a lot of teams that absolutely did not need a wreck. Racing for a position outside the top 20, Paul Menard lost his car in turn 4, spinning into the wall. The wreck destroyed Menard’s No. 98, but also the No. 61 that was being driven by Camping World West Series champion Jason Bowles in his NNS debut. Bowles had absolutely nowhere to go, and made hard contact with the No. 98, marking the worst wreck that Specialty Racing has endured since Talladega last April. For a team that had been starting-and-parking the last two weeks in an effort to survive until Daytona next February, this was not a blow they needed to take. The same can be said for two other teams involved: Eric McClure suffered heavy damage in what has been a rough fall stretch for the No. 24 team (McClure was also involved in a violent wreck at Memphis), while Jeremy Clements pancaked the right side of his No. 0 car trying to dodge the Bowles/Menard carnage. All of the teams involved failed to finish the race.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Kenny Wallace. Anyone that follows the Nationwide Series knows what a remarkable job Kenny Wallace has done transforming Jay Robinson Racing’s No. 28 into a competitive entry week in and week out. What’s more, his 17th-place finish on Saturday was not only a lead-lap run that saw Wallace outrun David Reutimann, Brendan Gaughan and other better-funded entries, but the third consecutive top 20 for the No. 28 team. Before Wallace came on-board with JRR, those kind of results for this organization were unheard of.
The Final Word
Allgaier and the No. 12 team really seem to have slid backwards from where they were at the start of the season… the Penske driver has done a lot of things right and well this year, but he’d better shake this slump quick… that Parker Kligerman guy’s going to be awful antsy to go from part-time to full-time over the course of next year.
Bayne’s full-time ride is coming at the hands of Diamond-Waltrip Racing, and the return of Gary and Blake Bechtel to the ownership ranks of the NNS. Welcome back guys… and with a promising driver behind the wheel. Bayne’s going to be something special.
And what would a Nationwide Series race be without another episode between Hamlin and Keselowski? Yes, the tapes were clear… Kes definitely hit Hamlin. It certainly was intentional. But, it wasn’t unprovoked either; Hamlin hit Keselowski in turn 2. And as Dale Jarrett said during the broadcast, that was “a lot of history.” Both drivers have repeatedly said they’ll race each other like the other does to them, so both hit each other. Kes got the better lick. Does Hamlin have a right to be upset? To go after Kes at Homestead? Absolutely he does. If Hamlin goes out of his way to take a shot at the No. 88 next weekend, he’s well within his right. But listening to his comments again about how he’s never wrecked the No. 88 (does Charlotte 2008 not ring a bell?) and how he’s got this whole racing thing figured out after just four years on the NASCAR scene bothers the living daylights out of me. I’m typically not one to celebrate drivers wrecking each other… but I’d be lying if a little part of me didn’t celebrate seeing Brad refuse to take crap from Hamlin on Saturday afternoon.
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