If nothing else, the Ford 300 was certainly a microcosm of the 2009 season. Brad Keselowski and Jason Leffler ran hard with good cars, but not good enough to challenge Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch (though in all fairness, both were also involved in incidents). And as for the two Cup superstars who resigned themselves to chasing a minor league title since neither one seems to have an answer for Cup juggernaut Jimmie Johnson, Edwards did everything in his power and played tire strategy late in the race to perfection as his team planned.
And it still wasn’t enough to outrun Busch’s No. 18.
Busch scored his ninth win and 20th top-two finish of 2009 on Saturday, cementing a season of utter dominance the likes of which the Nationwide Series has never seen, and likely never will. Just as with every single time the No. 18 car took to the track this season, it was among the top three or so cars in the field.
The title left no room for suspense, as Busch clinched it by simply taking the green flag. And to couple with that disappointment, Denny Hamlin in true poser fashion lived up to his word, spinning Keselowski on lap 35 after vowing to pay him back after their incident at Phoenix last weekend. The incident, however, was just as laughable as Keselowski made it out to be over the radio, as both cars continued on without incident… and without the interluding Cup regular having done anything to get into Keselowski’s head.
Perhaps the biggest story of the day was that Mike Bliss‘s return to Phoenix Racing for a one-race deal was just enough to keep him in the top five in Nationwide points… and on the stage for the banquet. Justin Allgaier, who finished sixth in points, clinched Rookie of the Year honors.
The top-two Nationwide regulars in the finishing order came out of the same stable… Rusty Wallace Incorporated. Steve Wallace finished a solid eighth after a hard charge through the field in the waning laps, while Brendan Gaughan finished 11th, unable to navigate late-race traffic as well as Wallace (he was hung up on the high side). For Wallace, it was a strong reminder of how far he’s come, and how he’ll be well worth watching for come 2010. As for Gaughan, it was about all he could do to keep his name in RWI’s mind as they plan for next year; Gaughan’s car does not have enough sponsorship to run the full schedule next year, and with David Stremme now out of the running for a Cup ride with Phoenix Racing it’s appearing all the more likely that No. 62 will not have the Las Vegas native behind the wheel at Daytona.
Jason Keller and Bliss‘s 13th- and 16th-place runs were not spectacular, but both did all they could. Bliss managed to keep himself top five in points despite playing musical cars all around the Nationwide garage since August, while Keller delivered an admirable capstone performance to close his tenure at Baker/Curb Racing, one that showed just how much impact this veteran has had on the No. 27 team… and every team he’s been around. Here are two guys that better be racing full-time in 2010.
And Mike Wallace had an impressive 15th-place run that was the most stout performance he’s yet had in his time with JD Motorsports. Wallace has inked a deal for 2010 to drive the No. 01 car full-time, and if Saturday is any indication, he may be able to do just what brother Kenny has done with Jay Robinson Racing… turn his team into a top-20 fixture. Considering JDM’s history, that’s no small accomplishment.
Kelly Bires‘s debut with JR Motorsports ended much as any race involving it’s owner, Dale Jr., has in 2009. Bires had a solid, if not spectacular, performance in the No. 5 car, only to pancake the wall late and suffer enough crash damage to fall back to 29th by race’s end.
Erik Darnell had much the same kind of luck, starting from the back in a backup car following a qualifying wreck, only to scrape the wall on multiple occasions throughout the night. Darnell finished a distant 31st, a result that when coupled with his underwhelming performance in Sunday’s Cup race does not bode well for the former CWTS winner landing a major ride next year.
Cup regulars dominated, just like all of 2009, this time taking the top-seven positions and nine of the top 10.
Meanwhile, in the back of the field, just like all of 2009, start-and-parkers took the back eight spots, knocking at least five teams planning to run 300 miles out of the field.
Which leads us to this week’s underdog performer of 2009:
Underdog Performer of the Week: Nationwide Series Regulars. Despite the odds being stacked against them week after week, the rules being stacked against them, despite having slim shots at victory at best, the Nationwide Series regulars were still there on Saturday, still working hard to try and slay giants with peashooters. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover this series through all of 2009, interviewing scores of drivers, crew chiefs, owners, you name it. Every single one of them knows the odds they face every weekend, and yet they still show up, pouring their hearts, souls and wallets into their race teams. To see their perseverance and competitiveness week after week has been my motivation to keep following and covering this sport through what has been a very trying season. Thank you to each and every team out there that can call themselves Nationwide Series regular, and I hope to see them all back in 2010.
The Final Word
Busch won the title, and he damned well should have. I’d go as far as to say any driver in the top five of the Nationwide standings could and would have done the same with those No. 18 cars.
Face it Denny, you’ve got nothing on Keselowski. I can’t begin to say how much I’ll miss getting to write about Brad in 2010, but I also can’t wait to see Keselowski taking it to NASCAR’s biggest crybaby (that’s right, Busch actually lost a title this year) on the sport’s biggest stage next year.
To all the race fans out there that have supported the Nationwide Series in 2009, thank you. And to the drivers and teams out there, a huge thank you to you as well from myself and everyone at Frontstretch. Be it Peyton Sellers or Doug Taylor taking time to explain racecars to a guy who can barely change his own oil, Eric McClure cracking jokes about his beloved UVA Cavaliers while making a writer like myself feel like nothing more than a fellow sports fan or any of the other number of drivers out there that were not only accommodating to myself and so many other race fans throughout this season, I was blown away by not only how professional these guys are, but also how grateful each and every one of them are for being able to race at this level. It has been an absolute pleasure to cover this series and to meet so many of its competitors and fans.
The Nationwide Series is truly something special. Here’s hoping NASCAR figures that much out… soon. To all of our readers at Frontstretch, thanks for your support, and barring anything unforeseen I’ll be back in 2010 to ignore the Buschwhackers, chastise Phil Parsons and MSRP Motorsports, and tell every single underdog story I can get my hands on. See you all at Daytona.