For much of Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener, it was business, or dominance, as usual for the Cup regulars entered in the field. With only Danica Patrick able to draw the attention of TV cameras off the Buschwhackers at the front of the pack, this race looked very much like all Daytona openers in recent memory for the Nationwide Series.
But in a race that resembled Talladega and Martinsville more than Daytona, the wrecks kept coming… and not even the stars at the front of the field were immune. A dramatic incident was triggered by Carl Edwards (who was running in the top five) on lap 91, and ended with Dale Earnhardt Jr. involved in a violent flip on the backstretch, while Kevin Harvick (then running second) and a host of others, including former series champion Jeff Green, were involved.
Tony Stewart, however, made it through unscathed, and held off a hard-charging Justin Allgaier over the race’s final 50 miles to score the February NNS race at Daytona for the fifth time in the last six years – tying Cale Yarborough in the process for third on the all-time wins list at the historic superspeedway. Also impressive was Allgaier, who positioned himself perfectly to make a run for the checkers. Second on the white-flag lap, he ended up fourth and was one of three Nationwide Series regulars to wind up in the top 10 (James Buescher finished eighth and Steve Wallace 10th, respectively).
As for Patrick, she was involved in a massive pileup on lap 68 and finished 35th in her NASCAR debut.
Allgaier had a shot at the win going into turn 3 of the final lap of this race, and had Edwards chosen to go with him on the high side instead of with eventual race winner Stewart, he may well have scored the biggest win of his career. Either way, the sophomore Penske Racing driver earned rave reviews for his fourth-place run, including from Stewart himself, who said of his drafting partner, “He’s a very smart kid. That [having him pushing] was kind of an ace in the hole for us.” Allgaier was also the highest finishing Nationwide Series regular, with only Edwards currently ahead of him in the standings among drivers planning to run the full schedule. And if Saturday was any indication, it looks like he’s ready to ditch the sophomore slump label and contend for a title instead in 2010.
Steve Wallace went largely unnoticed during the TV broadcast, while another Wallace, Chrissy, scored plenty of press only to wreck on lap 1. However, when all was said and done his debut driving a Toyota for Rusty Wallace Incorporated went off without a hitch. Wallace scored a 10th-place run with a racecar that was among the cleanest left in the field, and in the process scored the first top-10 finish of his career on a plate track. Frontstretch‘s own Mike Lovecchio spoke with representatives from Toyota this weekend, who were gushing with confidence that RWI would win multiple races in 2010… looks like that confidence is well-founded.
Though there were other Nationwide Series regulars that finished ahead of him, a huge shout-out needs to go to Scott Riggs, who scored a top-15 finish in RAB Racing’s No. 09 car, the same team that floundered for much of 2009 with John Wreck Townley behind the wheel. Riggs, who found himself out of work for much of 2009 after refusing to run a start-and-park car for Tommy Baldwin Racing, ran as high as third at one point in the 300-mile race, proving to be one of the few Nationwide regulars able to infiltrate the lead draft even before the number of Cup drivers thinned out. And though the No. 09 returned bruised and battered to the garage, the finish was better than any driver of the car could muster on an oval in 2009. So welcome back, Mr. Riggs; here’s hoping a sponsor takes notice.
Finally, Rookie of the Race Buescher managed an eighth-place finish despite having a sticky transmission and no sponsorship. Buescher confirmed to Frontstretch post-race that James Finch has guaranteed him a full 35-race schedule in the Nationwide Series for 2010, so look for the team’s No. 09 unsponsored Cup car to resume start and parking… to foot the Nationwide Series bill.
Green was running in territory the No. 05 team has not seen in recent memory, running as high as the top 15 despite earlier crash damage before getting heavily involved in the lap 91 incident that took out a number of front-running cars. Green ended up finishing in the 27th position, with a heavily scarred machine to boot.
Trevor Bayne‘s Daytona debut was about as short as they come, as the promising prospect found himself with a totaled racecar a mere six laps into the season after Mike Bliss pushed up the track entering turn 2, slamming the No. 99 machine hard into the wall. Bayne was understandably upset, declining comment when approached by Frontstretch after winding up a disappointing 41st.
In terms of wrecked racecars, Earnhardt Jr. will undoubtedly earn the most time on the highlight films, but the damage done to the front end of Josh Wise‘s No. 61 Ford was catastrophic, occurring after he was hooked by Colin Braun coming out of turn 4 on lap 68. The resulting carnage all but pulverized the front end of his machine, a nightmarish debut to the season for a team running on a limited budget. Overall, Specialty Racing continues to find itself polarized on both sides of restrictor-plate racing; the team managed a stellar 14th-place finish at Daytona this past July but also triggered a massive Big One at Talladega in 2008 when Kevin Lepage merged into oncoming traffic.
And while the damage was not as spectacular to their cars, the ecstasy that Rick Ware Racing enjoyed when both of their Chevys made the field at Daytona quickly turned to agony on Saturday. Chrissy Wallace failed to complete the first lap of her Nationwide Series debut, tapped by Paul Menard in turn 4 and slapping the fence in a crash that sent Brad Teague hurtling out of the way down pit road. When all was said and done, her No. 41 car ended up towed to the garage on a wrecker. Stanton Barrett wasn’t that far behind, finishing 37th after the Wise/Braun pileup shortly after halfway. So while RWR had a large presence on pit road for this weekend’s event, they had little to celebrate by the end of it.
Oh, and Menard bought his way into the field. Specifics remain unclear, but he and the juggernaut that is Roush bought a spot because Daddy John and his deep pockets are now willing to finance a minor league campaign for a son that’s consistently underperformed since joining the Sprint Cup ranks. And, as Brian Keselowski so aptly put it, such practices do “take away legitimacy from what we [racers] do.”
Underdog Performer of the Race: Morgan Shepherd. In an interview with Frontstretch last September, Shepherd revealed that he was looking to improve the performance of his race team by letting staff go and doing much of the work on his cars himself. Well, episodes like Saturday’s went a long way to explain this seeming lack of confidence in some of the personnel around him, as the driver of the No. 89 never even got off pit road before discovering that an error made in the car’s setup had left him with “no accelerator.” So while the rest of the field did pace laps, Shepherd and crew were in the garage, frantically working to get their car drivable as soon as possible.
Shepherd caught a break, though, as Chrissy Wallace’s early spin allowed him to get on the track without too many laps. And while the speeds he ran were nothing to write home about, the oldest driver in the field managed to avoid all of the carnage of Saturday, delivering a 22nd-place finish that, when coupled with a nearly $50,000 payday, made for a highly successful weekend with a team that will spend the first months of the season fighting like gangbusters to lock themselves into the Top 30 after falling out in the middle of last year. As longtime fans of the sport already know, quitting is not in Shepherd’s vocabulary….
The Final Word
Yes, ESPN spent way too much time highlighting a rookie who did anything but impress in her NASCAR debut. Yes, a large number of Nationwide Series regulars were left off the TV broadcast. Yes, NASCAR looked the other way while Roush Fenway Racing paid their way into the Nationwide Series field.
But there were definitely some bright spots for the Nationwide Series regulars out there. Allgaier came darned close to snatching victory from a dominant Stewart. A number of guys desperately in need of sponsor dollars delivered on the track, with Buescher, Keselowski and Riggs all delivering top 15s after mixing it up with drivers and rides that had budgets they could only dream of. And, most importantly, the racing was good.
ESPN clearly still has a long way to go in improving their NNS coverage. The Nationwide Series regulars still don’t look like they have a lot of rounds in the chamber to actually contend for their own series crown. But despite Danica-mania, Cup dominance and a weekend screwed up by rain, the drivers that are the backbone of the series accounted for themselves quite well.
See you in Fontana.