With the Nationwide Series set for a lengthy layoff following the weekend’s race in Las Vegas, the third race of the 2010 season will go a very long way in determining the direction of the season for just about everyone. There’s countless stories to watch for, regardless of how narrowly ESPN insists on framing its coverage, so rather than focusing on one, here’s a special Nationwide Series edition of Five Points to Ponder as the Nationwide Series enters its first make or break weekend of 2010.
ONE: MSRP Motorsports is really, really missing Phil Parsons already
After a surprising absence from the Nationwide Series garage at Daytona, the face of NNS start-and-park, MSRP Motorsports, re-emerged at Fontana with a new partner in Eddie D’Hondt but the all too familiar blank Nos. 90 and 91 cars, ready to take the money and run.
Only it didn’t work out that way. Both Stephen Leicht and Danny O’Quinn failed to qualify, and both teams went home even earlier than normal… before the green flag flew. Why is this is a big deal? Since the team’s inception in 2008, it has never once had both of its cars fail to qualify at a non-restrictor plate track. Going 0-2 on one of the most expensive travel weekends of the season is unacceptable for a money-making organization, and I’d wager that if Phil Parsons hadn’t abandoned his interests in this team to go double-dipping in the Cup ranks, it would never have happened.
Anyone that’s taken a look at Prism Motorsports’ pit stalls on the Cup side knows full well how Parsons’s start-and-park operations excel above all others in terms of making races… they’re in bed to an almost kinky level with Michael Waltrip Racing (OK, it is Michael Waltrip, it’s definitely kinky). The tires, the equipment, everything has MWR logos all over it. The reality is this… Parsons is connected, and those connections mean excellent equipment. There’s a reason Dave Blaney qualified in the top five at Fontana…and it had nothing to do with a gritty underdog tale.
MSRP on the other hand, saw both of its cars with talented wheelmen this past weekend, but a seeming lack of zest under the hood. That’s very unlike this operation… but very much like what an independent organization sans their previous, influential, owner trying to race two cars with nothing but a bottom line on the brain would run like.
Parsons may be missing MSRP and the easy start-and-park environment of the Nationwide Series after having Blaney’s Cup car confiscated, but MSRP’s probably missing him and his connections a whole lot more.
TWO: Two roads diverging in a wood for John Wes Townley
Believe it or not, his middle name is Wes, not Wreck. But no one can realistically be blamed if they thought his name had something in common with a pile of twisted metal on the side of the interstate after a rookie campaign in 2009 that saw the former ARCA regular DNQ for six events and DNF 10 times, seven for crashes alone. It’s not hard to make the case that Townley was promoted from ARCA to Nationwide competition too quickly… any driver who’s resume at the start of his rookie campaign in NASCAR has to include the number of top-15 finishes scored in ARCA competition obviously didn’t have the top 10s and the laps led to justify such a promotion.
But Townley is here for year two, with a sponsor that’s not going anywhere and a past champion race team putting his cars on the track. And though 2010 had a bright spot in qualifying for Fontana, where Townley started a career best sixth on the grid, the race performances haven’t been much improved; a mid-pack finish at Daytona and a 30th at Fontana, including an unassisted spin on the backstretch that helped send Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the wall.
It’s not like this type of thing hasn’t been seen in the Nationwide Series before. Drivers with sponsors get chances that others don’t get. That’s the reality of it. And it could go both ways in this case, just as it has in the past. Being in the camp he’s in at RCR, Townley is in the best possible place he could be if he wants to go the way of Steve Wallace or Eric McClure; drivers that kept getting the seat time despite in Wallace’s case being aggressive and careless to a fault, or in McClure’s case driving cars that weren’t going to keep up even with Sam Ard behind the wheel. He’s driving for a team that’s won this Series before, and done it in dominating fashion.
That said, if Townley wants to go the route of Wallace or McClure, to become a driver that, thanks to the seat time afforded by their sponsorship, has become a markedly improved competitor on the track, the results have to come in 2010. The equipment at RCR is better than Wallace had at the start of his career at RWI, and is light years ahead of what McClure has had to drive, well, ever. Improvement has to show, and not just during qualifying runs, in the very near future.
Otherwise, Townley’s going to learn the hard way what Kyle Krisiloff finally seems to have learned: no matter how much money is behind a name, eventually there won’t be a team out there willing to fund a wreck behind the wheel.
THREE: Speaking of Steve Wallace’s home, what’s up with Brendan Gaughan at RWI?
Wallace is off to a career best start in 2010 with back to back top-10 finishes at Daytona and Fontana. Counting back to Phoenix last November, that’s four top 10s in a row. Wallace is surely loving the Toyota assistance coming from RWI’s new partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing, but this improvement of his was showing even last season. Love him or hate him, this guy’s finally figured out what it takes to race at this level.
But while Wallace stands poised to make serious noise, his teammate Gaughan is floundering in comparison, coming off a highly disappointing run at Fontana that was an underachievement even before his late-race spin. The No. 62 team had had high hopes for the event, running a car that they had built to be a carbon copy of a JGR Toyota. How’d that work out? Well, Kyle Busch was in victory lane… Gaughan finished 24th.
And his results over the last four Nationwide races that have seen his teammate thrive? The numbers don’t lie: four top 10s and an average finish of 8.5 for Wallace, no top 10s and an average finish of 21.0 for Gaughan.
Gaughan’s struggles could be for any number of reasons. Conspiracy theorists will insist that Daddy is making sure Steve gets all the best stuff in the shop, leaving Gaughan to fight for scraps. More likely though, it seems that the No. 62 camp just wasn’t ready to roll to start this season. Let’s not forget that during the offseason, the decision to retain Gaughan came very late, as the team’s search for sponsorship did not prove fruitful (note how Gaughan’s South Point Resort is back on the hood again). Is an underwhelming start to the season simply a product of a second car that had a late start trying to catch up? Las Vegas is about the best track possible for everyone to find out: Gaughan led laps and finished seventh in this race one year ago, and obviously won’t be lacking motivation to go for the W at his hometown track.
FOUR: Just as a previous Penske driver in Gaughan wants a Vegas trophy, a current Penske racer wants one too…
Justin Allgaier would like to thank everyone who will come out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday for returning to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his Nationwide Series coming out party. Last season after heavy race favorite and hometown star Kyle Busch wrecked out of the event early, it was none other than the young Allgaier that stole the show, leading a number of laps and daring to run the treacherous low side of an oval that since repaving has continually sent cars willing to run low in turns 3 and 4 backwards into the retaining wall.
Allgaier, however, made that low side work, passing Cup regulars that were simply unable to duplicate his moves. And though late race contact messed up his fenders just enough to force him to settle for a top 10 instead of challenging for the win, Allgaier served notice he had something for the Nationwide Series… and LVMS.
Now, with consecutive top 10s to start his season as well as a near-win at Daytona, alongside a teammate in Brad Keselowski that almost stole the win last weekend, Allgaier is riding a Penske freight train that’s got two cars running full steam ahead as they return to a track that some might feel owes the youngster one after his 2009 performance. Whether the asphalt has weathered enough to reduce the attrition rate at Vegas remains to be seen, but no matter what state the field is in coming to the checkers on Saturday, Allgaier will be one to watch for.
FIVE: But will anyone be watching?
Despite ESPN saturating Nationwide Series coverage and advertisements with more Danica Patrick than FOX’s 2009 broadcasts did with Digger, TV ratings for the NNS race at Fontana were down. And it’s not like there wasn’t enough Danica on the screen… we had two angles of her when she pitted, knew every time she got lapped, and saw her in a full screen, thrilling single-car charge across the line to finish 31st despite missing everyone from about 10th on back crossing the line themselves.
And yet, the TV ratings that were so astronomically high for Daytona were back to earthly levels a mere seven days later. Just like a novelty pop, a great sugar rush, but not something to run down the ice cream man and demand another for.
And don’t expect the numbers to do any dramatic trending upwards, either this weekend or after Danica takes her break from stock cars. Fact is, ESPN and the Nationwide Series missed their chance to capitalize on the bevy of viewers that Danica did bring to the table at Daytona. By selling her as the end-all product and kicking the actual races and series competitors aside, just as SPEED did during coverage of the ARCA race at Daytona, there was nothing for those first-time viewers to come back and see the following week. Danica debuted, Danica hit a wall (and another car).
Go figure that the same thing happened to the TV ratings. Already.