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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nationwide regulars refuse to back down to Cup visitors at Nashville

If I told you the #33 car from Kevin Harvick Incorporated got a top-5 finish at Nashville, and you hadn’t seen the entry list, you’d probably assume Harvick had put in his usual solid Nationwide guest performance.

But that’s not what happened. Up-and-coming driver Kelly Bires, who doesn’t even have a full-time ride in 2009 in the Nationwide series, accomplished this feat in the same equipment normally driven by a Cup star. Bires’ great run was capped off by a pass of Carl Edwards in the final laps.

This was just one example of something that I’ve been advocating for a long time: Letting the young, talented drivers of NASCAR have the spotlight in the Nationwide series. Bires’ run – and others, including Steven Leicht’s solid run in the #29 RCR car on Sunday -- is just one of many examples that show that given good equipment, these young drivers can run with the Cup guys and compete for wins.

My favorite moment of the race involved Nationwide full-timer Michael McDowell, who put on a great show toward the end of the race by holding off Kyle Busch for several laps, then engaging Kyle with a little contact when Busch first tried to pass him for the lead. It’s nice to see the regulars not laying down for the Cup guys, even if they know they’ll eventually lose the battle most times.

Nationwide regular Jason Leffler had a solid day, finishing 6th and continuing a long string of solid finishes. He is the best of the Nationwide-only drivers in the standings, just ahead of Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski. In a perfect world, where Cup drivers didn’t drive full Nationwide schedules, the two of them would be battling for the title, along with Justin Allgaier, Brendan Gaughan, Jason Keller and Mike Bliss, among others.

Instead, we get the Kyle and Carl show when you look at the points chart.

The Keselowskis both can be happy
It was a great day for Brad Keselowski, who finished third but was weak on restarts and didn’t have enough car to compete with the Gibbs team, who are threatening another dominating season in 2009 (minus the magnets, of course)

Brad Keselowski is now up to 5th in points, but now it gets tough. He’s within shouting distance of 4th place Jason Leffler and 3rd place David Ragan, but the odds of him catching up to Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – the duo who will most certainly battle for the crown – are pretty slim. It’s still early in the season, but the only scenario I see where he can have a shot at the title involves Busch and Edwards wrecking a lot, and that doesn’t seem likely considering how talented they both are.

His brother Brian Keselowski finished 41st Saturday, but don’t let that fool you. This was a solid weekend for the K Automotive team. Both the #26 and #96 cars qualified for the race, with Brian in the #96 and Dennis Setzer in the #26. Then in the race, Setzer put on a great performance and finished 20th, the first car one lap down. That’s a big boost in the owner points for the team, which is still battling to reach the top 30 and a guaranteed spot. I’m sure Brian would have preferred to finish better, but he’s doing everything right in his efforts to keep up his simple goal of running every weekend.

Stenhouse has solid debut
The Roush team debuted Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the #16, and the results were pretty impressive. While he ended up wrecking and finishing 23rd, he had put on a great effort up until that point. If I were Jack Roush, I’d let Stenhouse finish out the year in that car, but unfortunately it will probably be filled by the likes of Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray most weeks in 2009. The more time Stenhouse gets in a car, the better he will get. And he’ll gain a lot more from driving that car than the Cup guys could.

Can Carl catch up?
On Saturday, the Gibbs team showed it still dominates the Nationwide series. From early on, it was clear the race was going to belong to either Logano or Busch. Recognizing how strong the Gibbs cars are running, Edwards has asked Roush for more resources to be dedicated to improving the Roush cars to the Gibbs cars’ level of quality. Roush said he’ll do his best, but considering how strongly the #18 and #20 have run in the past couple years, it’s going to take a very special effort by the Roush team and Edwards to stop Kyle Busch from claiming the crown this year.

Here’s the difference. Carl is very solid every week, and usually finishes in the top 5. But he often has to struggle to get there. Meanwhile, Kyle starts up front and runs up front every week, without much apparent effort.

Upside-down Joe
I have to give props to Joe Nemechek, who despite being flipped upside-down in the Stenhouse wreck, almost was able to finish the race. In an amazing incident, his car went on the roof, then landed back on its wheels. He barely scraped the wall, and was able to drive to his pit stall. The only thing stopping him from being allowed by NASCAR to finish the race was that his roof flaps were not functioning properly. Pretty impressive, Joe, I must say.

Shepherd survives
Morgan Shepherd once again did what he had to do -- by staying out of trouble all day. With all the attrition, he ended up 31st, and jumped several spots to 21st in the driver point standings. He also remains in the top 30 in owner points, so he’s guaranteed a start at Phoenix next week.

If he can continue to keep his car in one piece and complete the races -- considering how much attrition there is each week in the series and the high number of part-time drivers – there’s no reason he can’t continue to climb the standings and achieve his goal of reaching the top-15.


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