In the thick of the chase for the 2008 Nationwide Series title, Brad Keselowski snatched victory from the hands of eventual champion Clint Bowyer under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, capitalizing on the veteran’s only mistake of the night.
On Saturday, the tables were turned; it was the spring race, and it was Keselowski himself who got, as he put it afterwards, “used up.” After a stretch of restarts following late-race cautions that saw his No. 22 Dodge burning the field from the drop of the green, it was Penske Racing teammate Justin Allgaier who anticipated the start perfectly on lap 274, making the pass and holding off a hard charge from the No. 22 en route to his first career Nationwide Series victory. Allgaier’s win also marked the earliest in the season that a series regular has won since Martin Truex Jr. conquered Mexico City in the third race of 2005.
Allgaier’s victory, with Keselowski finishing runner-up, also marked the second ever 1-2 finish for Penske Racing in NASCAR (to go along with 2008’s Daytona 500 triumph). But the ending was only one of the many fireworks that dotted what was an eventful Bristol race. Kevin Harvick dumped Joey Logano on the race’s final lap, an incident which caused Logano to leave the track without comment to the media. James Buescher and Trevor Bayne were involved in two incidents throughout the day, and perhaps the most surprising one was to see veteran Jason Keller run all over John Wes Townley in what was the most deliberate-looking wreck we saw all weekend.
Not involved in any controversy this week, Carl Edwards finished a quiet fourth and remained the Nationwide Series points leader, 24 markers ahead of Keselowski. Allgaier currently leads the Nationwide Series regulars in third, just 31 out of first place.
First, the obvious. Allgaier won a Nationwide Series race, and a Cup companion one at that, by beating a Cup Series regular. But beyond being a convincing performance on the circuit’s fastest bullring, Saturday’s result was just the next step forward for a driver that has done everything right and earned his shot at the big time. Allgaier, who spent years toiling on the dirt tracks of the Midwest and driving for his family-owned ARCA team, continued to demonstrate why he’s made friends and earned a respected reputation amongst Ken Schrader and countless other dirt racers out there. Seeing Allgaier in victory lane was not only a tangible example of his development as a driver, but a genuine appreciation for an opportunity at Penske Racing. It was a no-brainer that Penske was going to contend for the Nationwide title in 2010… but not everyone thought they’d have two cars doing it. Well if Saturday was any indicator, they do.
JR Motorsports has posted better results than a 10th and a 12th as an organization, but for both drivers, the performances were noteworthy. First of all, a tip of the cap to Scott Wimmer, who scored a top 10 and led laps in his return to the JRM camp – one that came about on very short notice. Earlier this week, JRM announced that they would run the No. 7 car full-time, sponsored or not, largely to ensure that Danica Patrick wouldn’t be faced with the overbearing challenge of actually having to qualify into a race. That led to Wimmer’s deal, which only runs through the next race at Nashville – but top 10s are a great way to extend that stay.
Meanwhile, Kelly Bires also had a solid afternoon, qualifying third and running in the top 10 before Kyle Busch bowled him over for no apparent reason on lap 147. Yet even with crash damage that left the rear end a mangled mess, Bires fought his way back up to 12th by race’s end. And that performance came even after he burned off the brakes early in the event.
Mike Bliss came all the way from the 41st starting position and endured a hard impact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to finish eighth, the first top 10 for Key Motorsports’ No. 40 team since Memphis last October, and only the second for the team since they went full-time in 2009. And Jason Leffler, who’s switching between rides in the Braun Racing camp to accommodate Kasey Kahne‘s part-time schedule, scored a top-10 finish while his teammate (and Cup regular) wrecked.
Roush Fenway Racing’s decision to run two full-time Nationwide Series teams for development drivers Colin Braun and Stenhouse Jr. has not panned out well this year. Yet again, both drivers were involved in wrecks; Braun couldn’t avoid a spinning Brian Scott and was then plowed into by Steve Wallace, while Stenhouse lost it on corner exit and couldn’t avoid the interior retaining wall. The teams’ respective finishes of 37th and 25th left the two operations 33rd and 35th in the owner points standings, leaving them with only one week to improve… or be forced to qualify on time at Phoenix. And the way these cars are running, more pressure is the last thing Roush’s two young drivers need.
Rusty Wallace Incorporated was another team that had multiple car issues, a disappointment exacerbated by the fact both cars were running extremely well at a track that their owner, well, owned for a long stretch of his career. Steve Wallace was unable to avoid Scott and Braun’s accident in turn 1, running into the No. 16 so hard that Braun’s Ford ended up parked on top of his racecar. Wallace finished 38th and saw a career best streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes snap. Then, teammate Brendan Gaughan was enjoying his best run of the season in the No. 62 machine before contact between Tony Raines and Shelby Howard sent the No. 70 car spinning and left Gaughan nowhere to go. Both drivers finished outside the top 30.
Scott Riggs, after scoring three consecutive top-20 finishes and moving into the top 10 in Nationwide Series points, failed to qualify the RAB Racing No. 09 car for Saturday’s race. Missing a race is always bad for a team seeking sponsorship, but this one was especially painful for Riggs; the most memorable run of his Cup career came at this very racetrack, where he and Jeff Gordon staged a furious late-race battle.
Two Nationwide Series rookies wasted no time in getting acquainted with the rivalry side of racing at Bristol. Within the race’s first 10 laps, Buescher and Bayne ended up making heavy contact, with Buescher appearing to come up the track across the nose of Bayne’s Toyota. The end result sent the No. 1 car hard into the straightaway wall. Buescher was apparently none too pleased, running over Brian Keselowski on lap 30, causing even more damage to the No. 1 car. Then, with his day already ruined, Buescher on lap 125 appeared to deliberately wreck Bayne and the No. 99, setting off a chain reaction that ruined what had been a promising run for Coleman Pressley in the No. 23 as well. For Buescher, it marked back-to-back races with wrecked cars, while Bayne saw a run of back-to-back top-15 finishes snap. In the eyes of this writer, Buescher showed a lot of the same ego that got him into trouble with teammate Rick Crawford at Circle Bar Racing last season. What more can be said about a driver that cuts across the bumper of another and wrecks himself, then wrecks the other guy anyway?
Underdog Performer of the Race: Willie Allen. Saturday’s race was a momentous occasion for a number of reasons for the No. 05 team. One, Tennessee native and 2007 Truck Series Rookie of the Year Allen scored a top-15 finish at Bristol. But what’s more, Saturday marked the first time this season that Allen and the No. 05 team got so much as a passing mention during the race telecast. And what’s more, it was the first top-15 finish for them since Victor Gonzalez Jr. scored a 14th-place run at Montreal last August. For Allen, it was his career-best Nationwide Series result, and arguably his best race in NASCAR, period, since being unceremoniously dumped from the No. 13 truck after winning the ROTY crown. Not too shabby a day for a team, as Marty Reid put it, “doing it with not a lot of money.”
The Final Word
Saturday was the first short-track race of the year, and the first one not featuring Patrick. And, unsurprisingly, the quality of both the racing and the telecast were the best of the year. Between the RWI cars, Allgaier and the JRM entries, there were plenty of regulars capable of mixing it up with the Cup guys. There was also all of the beating and banging anyone could ask for from even the new Bristol: Kyle Busch, Harvick and Keller all ran over competitors over the course of 300 laps, with Buescher even bringing retaliation into the mix at some point in the day. The number of start-and-parks in the event was also at its lowest point since 2007, with only four taking the green flag.
And ESPN deserves credit for what was one of the best Nationwide telecasts they’ve done since coming back to NASCAR. Though their job was admittedly made easier because so many cars that otherwise may not have been on TV were involved in incidents, only Andy Ponstein and Morgan Shepherd in the entire field were not mentioned or shown in some capacity. What’s more, ESPN for the first time in a while went back through the pack to highlight a number of series regulars, including Allen, Bliss and the Wallace brothers.
So Saturday was fun racing, and fun to watch – more proof that short tracks truly can cure all ails.