Monday, June 23, 2008

The New Young Guns are making their mark

Has anyone noticed how exciting the Nationwide Series races have become now that the series regulars are becoming more competitive? With the new "Young Guns," such as Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kelly Bires, and Brad Coleman, and the veterans becoming more competitive, a championship or even a race win is no longer a given for the "claim jumpers"--the four Cup drivers who are racing full time in the Nationwide Series. This is what we mean when we write about "evening up" rather than "evening down."

Drivers like Jason Keller, Jason Leffler, Mike Bliss, and David Stremme are the ones who will ultimately give the series its own identity, but the Cup bound young guns have given notice that if you are going to be competitive in the Nationwide Series, you better be prepared to race hard and be able to take some dents, dings, and bruises.

It would be nice if the Cup teams were limited as to how many cars they can run in one weekend in all three of the top series, but we don't advocate that NASCAR should tell any teams at any level what drivers they can use. Just imagine if NASCAR did do that. It would start with "you can't put Dale Earnhardt, Jr in the #5 Nationwide Series car at Daytona, because he is a Cup driver, and Michelle Theriault needs a ride." That would open a door for them to tell HMS, "Jeff Gordon already has eighty wins and four championships, so you can't race him in Cup any more. Instead, you have to put Landon Cassill in the #24 Sprint Cup car."

Get my point now?

That is a moot point, now that the Nationwide Series teams and drivers are stepping up. Drivers like Keselowski and Logano have said things like, "it doesn't matter who is in that car, it is just another car I have to pass."

I just love that attitude.

Returning to the subject of this post, which is supposed to be about the Camping World RV Rental 250 at the Milwaukee Mile, it seemed like the best race so far this year for the Nationwide Series. The racing started early, as it should at a one mile track in a 250 mile race. Pit strategy shouldn't really matter here--ideally such a race is about "go-go-go."

And Brad Keselowski went, leading the race from the pole for nearly 170 laps. Logano, was right behind him for many of those laps. With around eighty laps to go, Logano makes a move to race Keselowski for the lead. They race side by side for several laps, then, unfortunately, Logano gets loose while trying to pass Keselowski low. Keselowski's car happens to be in a position to keep Logano's car from hitting the wall, but unfortunately that causes damage to his car, and spins him out.

This was really unfortunate, because it messed up what looked like a great race between two of the Nationwide Series' top young guns, but when they are racing hard like that, something bad has to happen. Unfortunate, also, because now Dale Jr fans have another reason to hate another JGR driver. We have been pulling for Keselowski, because he has a chance to be the first series regular to win a championship in three years, so we didn't care much for this chain of events, either.

Another reason it is unfortunate is that it gives the Series' points leader, Clint Bowyer, the race lead. Another claim jumper, Carl Edwards soon catches him, and hits him hard with around thirty laps to go to pass him. Meanwhile, Keselowski has made it back to the top five, but the real threat remains to be Joey Logano, who has passed Bowyer and is running in second.

Caution with less than twenty laps to go. Logano asks his crew chief, Dave Rogers, "You know that 'give and take' thing? Is it more about taking now?"

"Yes," Rogers replies, "Take, take, take!"

But, in spite of hitting his marks perfectly, and in spite of the alleged "extra horsepower" of the Toyota engines, Logano can't catch Edwards, but does stay ahead of Bowyer, who is running third.

Joey Logano finishes the race in second place, and ends up being the only Nationwide Series driver to end up in the top five. Keselowski finishes in eighth, unable to hold his position against claim jumpers David Ragan and David Reutimann, who finish fourth and fifth respectively. It is enough to keep Keselowski in second place in the championship points, but now he is 188 points out of first, and only two points ahead of David Ragan in third.

Carl Edwards impresses us by using his victory celebration to pay tribute to Milwaukee native Alan Kulwicki, who originated the "Polish Victory Lap." Edwards takes the checkered flag and circles the track clockwise, to salute the fans, and Kulwicki. He also refuses to perform his customary back flip, because he doesn't feel it would be appropriate after the news of the death of Scott Kalitta. We have to respect him for that, it was a very honorable thing for him to show that consideration.

While we once thought Logano might be too boring to be a candidate for favorite driver when Stewart retires after next year, that thought has been changed. Logano has little respect for the veteran drivers, does not apologize, and does not even mention his slide that damaged Keselowski's car and possibly prevented Keselowski's second win of the season. A driver who does nothing more than thank his crew and mention his sponsors would be boring even if he won thirty-six races in one year, but Logano does not come across as boring at all. He, like Keselowski and many of the other Nationwide Series regulars, is in racing to do one thing, and that is to win.

With the announcement last week that Casey Mears will not be returning to race the HMS #5 car in Cup next year, we expect Hendrick to be putting Keselowski or Cassell in that car next year--most likely Keselowski. This will once again take a great driver from the Nationwide Series, which has been sorely in need of great drivers. Since Brad Keselowski has yet to race in the Cup series, we don't know for sure if this is a good move. He has shown that he can beat Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series, however, and that, somehow, justifies the claim jumpers.

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