The Marcos Ambrose Redemption Tour carried on across the border into Montreal Saturday, with the Tazmanian exorcising his demons on the Circuit Gilles Villeneueve by recovering from an early-race run-in with Jacques Villeneuve to score his fourth career Nationwide Series win in his first start of 2011. Hometown IndyCar regular Alex Tagliani finished second, with Michael McDowell, Steve Wallace and JR Fitzpatrick rounding out the top 5.
With the sun shining as the green flag dropped, the first half of the Montreal road course event was among the quietest seen since NASCAR started racing on the renowned Formula One circuit; there was still battling for position, but minus the myriad of incidents accompanying it. That all changed when the sky darkened on the horizon, and the threat of rain forced the entire field into a frenzy, with four yellows taking up nearly 50% of the final 21 laps. The closing laps saw a myriad of road ringers, including Villeneuve, Robby Gordon and Boris Said all forced out of the event.
None of the Nationwide Series title contenders proved to be much of a factor in Saturday’s race, with all battling through mediocre days. Elliott Sadler quietly stole a top 10 finish thanks to attrition on the final lap of the race, while Reed Sorenson finished 25th after spinning in the hairpin turn with only two circuits to go. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had his motor let go two laps short of the finish and finished 26th but maintained the points lead, eight markers ahead of Sadler and nine in front of Sorenson.
It was a stroke of genius for Penske Racing to put IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani in the seat of the team’s second car at Montreal, even if was on a budget; Tagliani got only limited testing time in the No. 12 car and was running a secondhand engine in his Dodge despite some sponsorship from both Dodge and Hot Wheels. But Tagliani ended up carrying the torch for his national fans on a day that saw Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier both fall by the wayside. It was impressive enough return to stock cars to start on outside pole and run in the top 5 (Tagliani’s first two starts both resulted in finishes outside the top 25), but even moreso how Tagliani ended up finishing second, recovering from a car that faded on the early part of the run to storm back to second through the chaos of the closing laps.
There are a lot venues to score a career-best finish at, and there aren’t many folks out there who would expect Steve Wallace to score his at Montreal, but that’s exactly what happened this Saturday. Wallace, who scored an unlikely top 10 qualifying effort, stayed in that part of the field all afternoon, a day that the No. 66 crew also brought their A game. Wallace had one hiccup, going into an ill-advised three-wide pass in the hairpin turn that spun out Patrick Carpentier on lap 55, but he proved able to recover, weathering the fury at the front of the field late to come home fourth. It was his first top 5 finish since Darlington in May.
Also scoring a career-best road course finish was one Justin Allgaier, scoring some redemption from the road circuits after losing what seemed a sure win at Road America by running out of fuel under caution. Allgaier was a survivor more than anything else, but came home eighth and made up some ground on points leader Stenhouse. His Turner Motorsports teammate Jason Leffler also gave a strong account of himself, with a ninth place finish that saw the No. 38 run better than that for much of the afternoon.
Shout outs also need to go to road ringers JR Fitzpatrick, Scott Speed and Kyle Kelley, finishing fifth, sixth and 13th respectively.
Aric Almirola saw his streak of five consecutive top 10 finishes come to a close….though he was running in the top 5 with only two laps to go. Almirola had a solid run that looked to add on to his impressive road results at the Glen a week ago, but the pandemonium of the final charge to the checkers claimed the No. 88 as its list of victims. Despite finishing 20th, Almirola still made up ground on the front of the points standings.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. maintained the points lead, but yet another engine expiration has got to be concerning for the Roush Fenway racer heading into the final run for the title. Between Trevor Bayne’s motor failure at Lucas Oil Raceway, and Stenhouse losing his power plants at Iowa and now Montreal, durability is no longer something the RFR camp can take for granted in the closing months of the 2011 season. That’s far more concerning than a 26th place on a road course.
Mechanical failures took Jeremy Clements, Andrew Ranger, Boris Said and Patrick Carpentier out of contention early. As for Carpentier, Montreal on Saturday marked his retirement race; he pulled his car off the track and ended up climbing a scaffold behind the fence to watch the final few laps. In a fitting tribute, the track picked him up in the second pace car and gave him a final tour around the circuit, a small token of recognition for a driver who will be missed in motorsports.
Alex Kennedy, for all his road racing experience, looked more like the driver who caused a scary wreck under caution at Dover back in the spring instead of a road ringer. Kenndy spun on lap 20, crashed on lap 56, and then dropped debris on the track on lap 61 after finding trouble a third time. Suspension troubles proved to be the official cause of death for the No. 23’s day, but it was certainly an ugly day long before the chassis failed.
But none had an uglier day than Maryeve Dufault, whose Nationwide Series debut at Montreal proved to be anything but a highlight of her stock car career. Dufault spun unassisted on lap 13. Two laps later, she spun again in turn 8 in a blind corner, and rather than spinning her car around in the right direction, pulled back across the track into oncoming traffic; Trevor Bayne narrowly scraped by, cutting his right front tire down as a result of the scrape with Dufault’s rear end. That scary incident brought out the second yellow, but it wasn’t the end to Dufualt’s day; she would later spin out in turn 8 again on lap 67 and finished the race five laps off the pace, the last car in the field running that hadn’t been hampered by a mechanical issue. It’s hard to put a positive spin, or even an ‘I’m learning” spin on a day that saw the driver so seemingly aloof as to her positioning on the race track and ability to get her car pointed the right direction.
Underdog Performer of the Race: The Nationwide Series Field A trip north of the border to a demanding road course, and yet only one car start-and-parked Saturday’s race. That’s about as refreshing as it comes, and a field well worthy of the 70,000 raucous fans in the stands at Montreal.
Start-and-parkers occupied 1 of 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $19,392 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 3 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 5 of the 43 spots in the field, and took home $209,611 in purse money.
300 of 1023 starting positions occupied (29.3%)
$6,579,958 dollars won
20 of 24 trophies collected (83.3%)
Who You Didn’t See
Kyle Kelley, Mike Wallace, Tomy Drissi, Josh Wise and Derrike Cope all ran the distance in Saturday’s race and were mentioned in no capacity during ESPN’s telecast. In addition, Jason Bowles, Kenny Wallace, JR Fitzpatrick, Mike Bliss, Luis Martinez, Jeremy Clements, Blake Koch, DJ Kennington and Louis-Philippe Dumoulin were all mentioned only in passing or as lapped traffic, while Timmy Hill was mentioned only as a lucky dog. Of note:
- Mike Bliss’ No. 19 team had rare sponsorship this weekend from Del Monte Foods; Del Monte enjoyed a second consecutive top 15 finish at Montreal as a result.
- Jeremy Clements, Morgan Shepherd, Blake Koch, DJ Kennington and Blake Koch all had mechanical troubles sideline them early, without any update short of a “they’re in the garage” mention for a handful.
- Tomy Drissi nearly went the distance in Rick Ware’s No. 75 car with sponsorship from the upcoming Chipmunks movie, only the second time in 2011 that the RWR entry went the distance.
- Blake Koch drove the No. 70 this weekend in place of Dennis Setzer and Mark Green, the two drivers who typically have filled in on weekends that ML Motorsports and David Stremme don’t field a car.
- JR Fitzpatrick’s fifth place finish was his career best.
The Final Word
- After his earlier dust-up with Patrick Carpentier, a member of the No. 99 team’s crew came up to Wallace and pulled his hair while trading words. Wallace responded that he thought only girls pulled hair. Love the Wallaces or hate them, Steve was right on this one. Pulling hair is a ridiculous thing to do in or out of the car, but this whole going after people while they’re still in their race cars has got to stop. Be it Harvick going after Busch at Darlington earlier this year, or a scuffle between Kyle and Steve Wallace that saw Wallace grab Busch by the helmet, how much more passive can you get? Go after someone in a confined space that’s trying to drive? Pay them a visit in person after the race and stop acting like girly men.
- The energy of the crowd at Montreal was evident even without ESPN touting it every 15 minutes on TV. Whatever the financial problems facing the race’s promotion and the track, it’s hard to argue against continuing this event….there’s not many visits the Nationwide Series evokes such passion anymore.
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