Anyone that’s read my Nationwide Series coverage over the course of the 2009 season knows full well that it’s been hard for me to find positive things to say. And as hard as I have tried to come up with some insightful concluding words to head into the off season by, I instead decided to let the action on the track speak for itself. Here are the 10 most impressive performances that the Nationwide regulars managed to muster, in my eyes at least, this season. While Kyle Busch celebrates a title he had wrapped up from the drop of the green flag at Daytona… and ESPN gushes all over it like he actually accomplished something, I hope this look back reminds NNS fans out there of some of the bright spots that were still to be found in 2009.
To all my loyal readers, thank you as always for your support, and I’ll see you all come Daytona in 2010.
Las Vegas (March)
Justin Allgaier (finished eighth)
Though a late-race brush with the wall relegated him to an eighth-place finish, the third race of the season in Vegas was officially Justin Allgaier’s coming out party. The defending ARCA Re/Max Series champion put on a show throughout the second half of the 300-miler, leading laps and making passes on the low side of turn 3 and 4 that even Cup stars Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton were unable to complete. Even with late-race damage, Allgaier was contending for a top-five finish on the race’s final restart before being hit on the backstretch and knocked from the lead pack.
Kelly Bires (finished fourth)
At Nashville, Kelly Bires was fortunate enough to land a one-off deal with KHI after running start-and-park in a handful of races for Braun Racing earlier in the year, and boy did he deliver. After scoring a top-10 start, Bires fell out of the top 10 only once after a poor pit stop, and was challenging for the front late. Bires made one of the most overlooked moves of the race with less than 20 to go, making a bold power move under Carl Edwards entering turn 1 that flat left the King of Concrete looking sheepish. Edwards was right in saying that “if Bires doesn’t deserve a full-time ride, [he] doesn’t know who does.”
Tony Raines (finished fourth)
Tony Raines, who quietly ran mid-pack all day at Talladega, strategically moved into the lead draft late in the race, refusing to be shuffled out on the race’s final restart. Raines kept up with leaders Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the checkered flag, coming home fourth during some frantic jockeying for position. The finish was Raines’s first top 10 in the Nationwide Series since Homestead in 2007, as well as the best finish ever in the six-year history of Front Row Motorsports. Perhaps my favorite image of that April weekend was seeing Shannon Spake atop the No. 34 car’s pit box, a rig that lacked all of the fancy laptops, antennas and roof tents that we’ve become so accustomed to seeing, trying to speak to a crew chief she clearly had no clue about. Had Brad Keselowski not literally turned the racing world upside down the following Sunday, Raines may have been the story of NASCAR’s spring stint in Alabama.
Erik Darnell (finished fourth)
Erik Darnell’s performance on the track Too Tough to Tame was far from that, as he put his quiet season debut at Richmond the week before to bed with a convincing fourth-place run that saw him challenging frontrunners Busch and Matt Kenseth all night long. What’s more, Darnell brought his No. 6 car home with nary a scratch on it. There are few tracks out there more demanding and driver dependent than Darlington… and Darnell made clear he was up to the task. The run was perhaps the strongest he has on his resume as he heads into an uncertain offseason.
Jason Leffler (finished sixth)
He may not have picked up the most positions from where he started, but there is no doubt that the hard charger at Lowe’s this spring was Jason Leffler. The driver of the No. 38, who went out in qualifying almost immediately after his NNS title competition Edwards and Busch both qualified 1-2, was highly frustrated after his time trial run that landed him 28th on the grid. Angry to start so far behind, he spit a verbal tirade directed not at his team, but at those they are trying to keep up with:
“Why can’t I qualify up there with those f****** guys?”
Leffler’s crew told him to shake the bad run off for the race… and boy, did he ever. There was no driver on the track working harder for every pass than the driver of the No. 38, who methodically made his way to the front and was convincingly blowing by cars all night. Prior to a lap 153 caution that jumbled up the field during a green-flag pit stop cycle, Leffler had cleared lapped traffic and was running down both leader Busch and second-place driver Brian Vickers. Leffler lost only 20 points to Busch on a night that the No. 18 dominated another intermediate race, a job well done for his bunch. Plus, unlike Rowdy, when Leffler was expressing frustration it was about him… not his team. It didn’t take points to tell who was the better driver in that regard.
Justin Allgaier (finished fifth)
Joey Logano may have gotten the best of Busch at this race’s end, but it was absolutely mesmerizing to see the charge that Allgaier made on Busch following a lap 28 restart. Using the high side of the track and forcing Busch to run on the track’s bumpy inner lane through turns 1 and 2, the Penske Racing rookie raced side-by-side with one of NASCAR’s best for over 10 laps for the lead, leading five of those circuits and all the while proving that, at least in the short run, his Dodge had something for the Nationwide Series’ fastest racecar. Allgaier’s aggression continued even after Busch eventually got away, as he battled hard all night with Keselowski and other heavy hitters en route to finishing fifth, his third top five of the year. Allgaier’s relentlessness and near impossibility to pass on the track both frustrated the living daylights out of Keselowski and made this writer think an awful lot about how much he looked like one of Penske Racing’s past protégés… Ryan Newman.
Brad Keselowski, Steve Wallace, Ron Hornaday, Trevor Bayne
It doesn’t matter that race concluded with Busch and Edwards finishing 1-2. The battle that these four drivers staged all over the tight confines of the Indiana short-track for lap after lap on the Saturday night leading up to the Brickyard was perhaps the best racing NASCAR saw at any venue in any series for all of 2009.
Brad Keselowski (finished first)
What a day for the Keselowskis. First of all, Brad’s win was far more than simply a dramatic finish (a three-wide pass to the high side on the final lap that left both Busch and Vickers in the dust), it was a culmination of just how far this driver, and family, have come in the last two seasons (a trek that was highlighted in a fantastic feature on ESPN’s pre-race show for the Cup race that Sunday). To see the same driver who only two seasons ago was filling the field with Keith Coleman Racing after his family team went bankrupt able to position himself to overtake two Cup stars with dominant cars to win was nothing short of impressive. And while Brad’s victory was the headline, K-Automotive’s No. 26 team had a great outing as well, with Michael McDowell finishing on the lead lap in 17th position.
Canada’s native racers
The ESPN crew made note on more than one occasion of the large crowd that braved the rain and myriad of caution flags to watch the only foreign race of 2009, and the Canadian drivers in the field gave them plenty of reasons to cheer. While Jacques Villeneuve could probably have been dubbed the fan favorite judging from the crowd noise (and his fourth-place finish after his spotter miscommunicated the team’s pit strategy earlier in the day merited every bit of it), a number of others gave the Montreal race fans plenty to celebrate. Andrew Ranger, the Canadian Tire Series champion and who has proven time and time again unafraid to mix it up with the leaders, drew the ire of both Marcos Ambrose and Edwards for his aggressive driving at the front of the field. Chalk the complaints up to whining on the part of the two Cup regulars, though. The bottom line is Ranger knows the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve well, and it showed on a rainy Sunday as he came home third.
Credit was also due that day to Jean-Francois Dumuolin, whose seventh-place run was by far a season best for the R3 Motorsports No. 23 car, and to Alex Tagliani. Though he finished 26th after being involved in a late-race accident, Tagliani was running seventh in the No. 81 car coming to the final restart. Had Tagliani held on, it would have been the first top 10 for MacDonald Motorsports since Kevin Lepage scored one at Charlotte back in 2006.
Mike Bliss (finished second)
Watching Mike 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 this Saturday, and he knew it. Bliss qualified in the top five and never fell back further than sixth at any point during the 200-miler. 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 Clint 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. It also marked the first result of a productive stint for Bliss at CJM Racing.