- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Running a limited schedule once again this year in the Gillett Evernham Motorsports' No. 9 Dodge, Miller will be looking to build upon that experience Saturday at Kentucky Speedway (8:30 p.m., ESPN2). He finished 18th in last year's race, one of 22 cars on the lead lap. This year, with just five Sprint Cup Series regulars in the field, Miller knows finishing on the lead lap would be a nice accomplishment, but he's hoping for even bigger things.
"I've been looking forward to racing Kentucky all year," Miller said. "After how we qualified second last year, I want to come back and do one better this time. I just remember being so shocked we did that, in just my second start, and how excited everyone on the team got that day.
"I hope we can come in and be better than we were last year. I think we showed at Darlington [where he finished eighth] that we can compete for a win. If we can get the car balanced enough, I think I can bring home [a win]."
The race will be just the 12th Nationwide start of Miller's career and he'll still have plenty of Nationwide Series veterans to contend with, not to mention points leader Clint Bowyer and fellow Cup drivers David Reutimann, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and David Ragan. Busch will again be racing in all three series, running the Craftsman Truck Series race at Michigan on Saturday afternoon before flying to Kentucky. Jason Leffler, meanwhile, hopes to qualify Haas CNC Racing's No. 70 Cup car at Michigan before turning his attention to Kentucky.
Among the Nationwide regulars will be Brad Keselowski, looking to build on his first career win last Saturday at Nashville. He's never run in a Nationwide race at Kentucky, but he knows the key is having a mistake-free weekend along with a fast car. And he believes the stand-alone weekends where the Cup regulars aren't getting twice as much track time evens the playing field for the Nationwide-only drivers.
"When they fly in to these races we're on a more level playing ground with track time because they don't get a couple extra hours on Friday and then another hour or two right before our race on Saturday in their Cup cars," Keselowski said. "The more equal amount of playing time does help even things out for the guys who just run in the Nationwide Series."
Bowyer has a 166-point lead over Reutimann in his quest for his first championship, but he's hardly content at this point.
"… That's not enough. We've got to start running better," Bowyer said. "We had a good night last Saturday in Nashville, but we need to start winning some races and keep building on our points lead. We're working hard to try and figure some things out, but we definitely have to get better."
The same can certainly be said of Edwards, who hasn't won in the series since Nashville last June. He was in position to win this race a year ago, but contact from Steve Wallace on a late-race restart ruined Edwards' night and opened the door for Leicht to reach Victory Lane.
Needless to say, there are plenty of Nationwide-only drivers ready to take advantage if the lack of track time hinders the Cup regulars.
Scott Wimmer won March's stand-alone race at Nashville and is looking forward to Kentucky, a track where he enjoys competing.
"They had a lot of talented people involved when they were designing that track, and I know that Darrell Waltrip was one of them," Wimmer said. "When you've got a guy that has been racing that long help design your track, then they are going to make it right and do a good job. It's similar to what Rusty Wallace did in Iowa. It's a track where you need good aero and horsepower but you need to handle well. It puts a lot of emphasis on driver and crew. It's a fun track."
Veteran Mike Wallace said Kentucky reminds him of now-shuttered Pikes Peak International Raceway, where he won in the Craftsman Truck Series. He's also excited by the fact that his crew consists of many of the members of the team that won with Leicht last year, when Leicht drove for Robert Yates Racing.
"There's a lot of confidence going there," Wallace said. "We're taking the same car we ran at Dover. I'm having a lot of fun this year and enjoying racing a lot. My guys are really fun to be around and it makes going to the racetrack really enjoyable."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.