Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2009 Pepsi 300 at Nashville

On a weekend that saw the Nationwide Series take center stage outside Nashville, there was little chance for the Series’ regulars to show their stuff. Instead, yet another Nationwide Series race turned into the battle of JGR and Carl.

At least it was exciting. Overcoming early problems with lug-nut glue on pit road, JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano managed to conquer Concrete Carl, changing the lead multiple times at the front over the last 100 laps before Logano took control for good on lap 216, en route to scoring to his second career Nationwide Series victory. Carl Edwards, who led 45 laps, surrendered the lead on lap 135 after his tire changer reported that he had failed to tighten enough lugnuts on the previous pit stop. The mistake mired Edwards back in 25th, a gap he never recovered from.

Logano and Busch’s see-saw battle at the front of the field all day, which saw the two trade the lead on multiple occasions, overshadowed good runs by a number of NNS regulars, who scored six of the top-10 finishing positions on Saturday. The best of that pack was again Brad Keselowski, whose inability to get going early on restarts prevented his well-handling No. 88 from challenging the JGR Toyotas for the win.

With Busch and Edwards finishing second and fifth, there was little change in the point standings, with Edwards maintaining a 23-point lead heading into Phoenix this Friday night. Jason Leffler’s sixth-place run placed him fourth in the NNS standings, the highest rank of all Series’ regulars.

Who Should Have Won: Kelly Bires. Bires got a raw deal after the reshuffling at JTG Daugherty Racing last season left him without a ride despite a much improved 2008 campaign in the Nationwide Series for the team. This weekend, 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 this 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 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.”

Worth Noting

The Good

Along with Bires, the development drivers who got their shots in top-tier rides this weekend did admirable jobs behind the wheel. Stephen Leicht drove RCR’s No. 29 car to an 11th-place finish in his first race in the Series since Texas last November. Burney Lamar came home 13th in a Braun Racing Toyota, his first top 15 at Nashville since he debuted seventh at the track in 2006. And though 23rd place (involved in a late-race wreck) isn’t that respectable when considering Roush Fenway Racing, rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. performed far better than the finish showed in his Nationwide Series debut.

The Bad

1994 Busch Series champion David Green’s return to full-time Nationwide competition has been remarkably quiet, both in terms of media coverage and results (no top-15 finishes in the first five races). That was all going to change Saturday, as Green had driven all the way from the 42nd starting position into the top 10 by the race’s halfway point. Enjoying what was by far the best run of the 2009 season for the No. 07 team, Green got punted entering turn 2 by Lamar; the resulting wreck smashed the rear end of his Toyota beyond repair.

Instead of a top 10, Green finished 38th, a result that dropped his No. 07 team to a precarious 29th in the owner points standings.

The Ugly

I try not to write about Cup regulars in any of this column’s features, but Joe Nemechek’s wreck late in Saturday’s race has to get a mention. Working on a top-20 finish with his unsponsored team, Nemechek was racing with Stenhouse exiting turn 4 on lap 218 when disaster struck. Stenhouse got out of shape exiting the turn, slamming into Nemechek’s Chevrolet and sending the No. 87 over its hood into a flip. The car, however, landed on all four wheels, allowing Nemechek to drive away uninjured.

The uglier part of this incident? NASCAR refused to allow Nemechek to finish the race, even though he managed to drive his car to the pits for repairs. Let the man race!

Underdog Performer of the Race: Shelby Howard. Following the NNS race at Texas, I was quick to question ML Motorsports’ decision to put Howard in the No. 70 car in favor of Mark Green. Howard pulls a few more performances like he did this Saturday, I’m going to have to eat a healthy portion of crow. After starting 35th, Howard started moving to the front, cracking the top 25 soon after the midway point of the race, and by the end of 300 miles scoring a 14th-place finish on the lead lap.

The finish was Howard’s career-best in Nationwide competition and the best for the No. 70 car since Mark Green finished 14th in the Gateway race last July. Howard used to be among ML Motorsports’ toughest competitors back when they campaigned in the ARCA ranks… and if this race was any indication, the No. 70 team has some well-founded respect for the Indiana-native.

The Final Word

It was a day of goods and bads for the Nationwide Series. The good news was with regard to on-track action… there was plenty of it. Seeing Busch and Logano fighting for the lead for nearly the entire race provided for gripping racing at the front, while Bires, Keselowski and hard-chargers David Green and Scott Lagasse Jr. kept things mixed up throughout the field. The lack of rubber on the racetrack following heavy rains proved to be of little consequence to what was a solid 300-miler Saturday.

However, the bad, ironically, could be summed up by Edwards’s compliment of Bires following the checkered flag. Saying of Bires that if anyone deserved a full-time ride, he did, Edwards posed a question that has become the norm at this level of NASCAR: Why is it so hard for development drivers to get their shots in the AAA ranks these days?

Well, Mr. Edwards, you are part of the answer. Saturday was one of the most explicit examples of how full-time double-duty between the two series has transformed even NNS standalone events into Cup lite shows. Even though only six Cup drivers started in Saturday’s field, watching ESPN and Jamie Little on pit road you’d have thought it was Sunday, as Busch, Edwards and the crew chiefs of the Nos. 18, 20 and 60 cars were the prime point of focus all race long.

Thanks to this, again, a number of solid performances by the Series’ regulars went largely unnoticed. Lagasse, for example, scored a top-10 finish, yet I heard his name mentioned one time in the final 100 laps of the race. Steve Wallace was featured for his spin on lap 136, yet didn’t get but a brief look again until after the checkers flew, his comeback from the back of the pack to ninth place notwithstanding.

So Mr. Edwards, here is why Bires can’t get a ride: Why would a sponsor step up for a development prospect when they know that drivers like yourself are going to show up with faster cars and better teams to raid the trophy case and the purse? If Bires had started at Nashville with a team like Baker/Curb Racing instead of Kevin Harvick’s operation, he’d have gotten less airtime than he did Saturday… and that was during a top-five run. I’ve told this story all season long and I hate being repetitive in telling it again.

But it’s hard not to when even standalone races like Nashville have fallen into the same cycle as the vast majority of NNS races.

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