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Nationwide Series seeking mix of young and old

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

SPARTA, Ky. -- Even by Tom Logano's lofty expectations, his son Joey's historic victory in the Meijer 300 last weekend came as a shock.

Joe Gibbs Racing's 18-year-old hotshot became the youngest winner in Nationwide Series history after beating Scott Wimmer by more than 2 seconds in just his third race on NASCAR's second circuit.

Afterward, Tom Logano stood in the pits, mouth agape from getting the best Father's Day present ever from his precocious kid.

Then again, maybe dad shouldn't have been so surprised.

His son, after all, has been winning races since grade school. And Kentucky's 1.5-mile tri-oval is developing a reputation as a place where young drivers can post their breakthrough victory. Joey Logano's historic win marked the third time in as many years the winner's trip to Victory Lane was the first of their Nationwide career.

The reason for the kids' success is twofold. The Meijer 300 comes about halfway through the Nationwide season, meaning inexperienced teams have had time to get into a rhythm and figure their cars out.

The other has less to do with talent and teamwork than geography.

The Meijer 300 is one of just eight standalone events in the Nationwide Series. With most Sprint Cup drivers who double-dip in the Nationwide Series choosing to stay in Michigan for Sunday's Cup event, some of the circuit's lesser-known drivers finally get a chance to shine.

"It's definitely one of the tracks you come to in the back of your mind, and you look forward to having a good run," said Cale Gale, a part-time driver for Kevin Harvick Inc. who finished 18th behind Logano last weekend.

Good runs at Kentucky could be harder to come by for unknown Nationwide drivers in the future.

The track located about halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati is in the process of being sold to Speedway Motorsports Inc., and SMI owner Bruton Smith has made bringing a coveted Cup race to the track his first priority.

It would be a great move for a market hungry to see NASCAR's big boys do their thing, but would also mean the Nationwide event would likely lose its standalone status. Having the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at the same track on the same weekend means more Sprint Cup drivers hopping into the Nationwide Series cars on Saturday, meaning fewer rides for Nationwide's up-and-coming drivers.

"It's a trade-off," said Brad Keselowski, who is second behind Clint Bowyer in the Nationwide Series standings heading into this week's event in Milwaukee. "Will it make you better? Certainly. But you get thrown into a sea with so many other different talents that you get lost in the mix. There's different priorities."

Sprint Cup drivers can often use the Nationwide Series race as a chance to get the feel for a track before the green flag drops in a Cup race on Sunday afternoon. Brad Coleman, a Nationwide Series regular who will get a shot in the Sprint Cup with Hall of Fame Racing at the end of the season, pointed to NASCAR's favorite bad boy as an example of the challenges riding against a Cup regular can provide.

"Kyle Busch always drives like a maniac out there, but he's an extra maniac in the Nationwide Series because he'll go out there and he'll pass you three-wide sideways," Coleman said with a laugh. "You know they have nothing to lose. If they get up there and win, they get money. If not, hey."

Busch, who is atop the Sprint Cup Series, leads all Nationwide drivers with four wins. He also has five DNFs, the fifth coming after he put his No. 18 Toyota into the wall on lap 163 of the Meijer 300.

While upset about the finish -- particularly after he'd roared from the back of the field to lead a race-high 83 laps -- Busch's day wasn't really ruined. He hopped into a helicopter shortly after the race and flew back to Michigan, where he finished 13th in the LifeLock 400 on Sunday.

"Everybody wants to be in that position where you can wreck on Saturday and still have a shot to make up for it on Sunday," Keselowski said. "That's not my situation right now (but) I still enjoy racing against them. I don't want to see them get kicked out, that's for sure."

Neither does anyone else, because Keselowski knows people aren't buying tickets to see him race, not yet anyway. He knows having Cup stars like Busch and Carl Edwards in the Nationwide Series can only help. How many is too many? Nobody knows.

"When we get to areas where we have companion events, it helps in different avenues," said Nationwide Series director Joe Balash. "There are some double-duty drivers that take the place (of Nationwide-only drivers), but the media coverage is so much higher that weekend. It's kind of a balancing act."

One that the Nationwide drivers sometimes win. When Keselowski won his first Nationwide event in Nashville on June 7, the field included five Sprint Cup regulars.

"It's competitive whether the Cup guys are running in it or not and I think it legitimizes the series in a way and makes a win for a guy like Brad Keselowski even more special knowing he beat all these Cup guys who are still running," Edwards said. "It's not like a Cup guy wins very week. These guys are getting better."



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