- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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While four double-duty drivers look to snare the Nationwide Series points lead on Saturday, a number of Nationwide-only drivers look to make their mark. A few more, meanwhile, will be happy just to make their 2008 debut in the year's first stand-alone race.
With the Sprint Cup teams enjoying a weekend off, it's business as usual for the Nationwide Series -- which has its first break next weekend, when the Craftsman Truck Series joins the Cup teams in Martinsville, Va. With many of the Cup regulars taking the weekend off, only six will be at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tenn.
Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan or David Reutimann could emerge with the points lead at day's end as Cale Gale takes over the No. 33 Chevrolet that Kevin Harvick's driven to the lead through five races. And based on their track records at the 1.3-mile concrete oval, Edwards and Bowyer are clearly the ones to beat.
But that's what the likes of Mike Bliss, Brad Keselowski and Mike Wallace, among other Nationwide-only drivers, will be aiming to do. With fewer Cup drivers in the field, they should stand a better chance of a top-5 finish while hoping to find the way to Victory Lane if all goes perfectly.
Keselowski, eighth in points, wants to get his hands on the unique trophy: a Gibson Les Paul guitar.
"The only guitar I've played is with the 'Guitar Hero' video game. A couple guys on my team have it, and we've been practicing a lot," Keselowski said. "We're ready to try out a real guitar now. I'm not going to go out and buy one, so I've got to win at Nashville if I'm going to get to play a real guitar."
While the video game has been fun, he knows it'll take work to learn how to play the real thing. It would be a small price to pay for his first Nationwide win, though.
"If I win the guitar, I'll learn how to play it for sure," he said. "I don't usually take lessons. I'm not very good at listening to other people, so I'd probably have to teach myself."
Drivers such as Chase Miller, Landon Cassill and Colin Braun may have to reacquaint themselves with racing after having spent the first five weekends watching others do the driving. Miller (Gillette Evernham Motorsports), Cassill (JR Motorsports) and Braun (Roush Fenway Racing) are all driving limited schedules this year, with the 19-year-old Braun slated for just two events while cutting his teeth in the Craftsman Truck Series this season.
Miller is scheduled in seven races this year and is eager to race at a track where he made his first start for the team in 2007. Thus far, he's simply been biding his time.
"I travel with the team to every race I can. It makes a big difference going to the race and listening to how the team director and driver interact," Miller said. "If someone like Kasey [Kahne] or Elliott [Sadler] are racing it helps me out a lot. I can listen to their communication and it helps with my learning curve a bit. I'm just trying to do as much learning as possible.
"I also do testing for GEM. So I've been testing a little bit and trying to keep as much seat time as possible. During the week I've been driving the pit car that the crew practices on. It's the small things like that which helps build such a strong team atmosphere at GEM."
In addition to running the ARCA race at Daytona, Cassill has been attending the Nationwide races and doing a lot of testing for Hendrick Motorsports. Now, though, he's ready to get down to business. He says he's more prepared than he was a year ago.
"I've learned a lot about how aggressive I need to be on the racetrack and when to be aggressive. I think I'm going to learn in these Nationwide Series races this year how to apply that," Cassill said. "I'm also going to learn where your place is on the racetrack, when you need to use your bumper or your mirrors and also how to use your spotter.
"I think last year I was a little timid at times and needed that confidence. This year, I'm going to be able to hold some confidence. I'll go to the racetrack and not worry about who's next to me or who's behind me and just go out there and be aggressive and get after it."
Getting after it shouldn't be a problem for the likes of Edwards and Bowyer. Edwards has won three straight races at the track and looks to become the first driver to win four straight at a venue since Jamie McMurray did it at Rockingham in 2002-04.
Bowyer, though, is simply a force of nature at Nashville. In seven starts, he's never finished worse than fifth at the track. He's won there once and has three runner-up efforts to go along with finishes of third, fourth and fifth.
It's a staggering achievement and one he aims to add to on Saturday. And the success started when he finished second there in his ARCA debut -- the race that first caught the attention of Richard Childress, who gave Bowyer the break of a lifetime by signing him to a contract.
So Nashville's special for plenty of reasons as far as Bowyer's concerned.
"I remember going there and thinking you could build four of the tracks I was used to racing on inside that one," Bowyer said. "For whatever reason, Nashville just fits my driving style. I've always been fortunate enough to have good equipment and run well."
If he does so again Saturday, he might have the points lead heading into the first off week of the season.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Carl Edwards is hoping to add to his guitar collection this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway. Another Gibson Les Paul would look mighty good next to the three he won in 2005-07, writes Mark Ashenfelter.