From David Reutimann’s rain-shortened win the 2009 Coca-Cola 600, to Casey Mears’ fuel mileage win in 2007, to Dave Blaney’s first career Nationwide Series win in the fall of 2006, Charlotte Motor Speedway has seen its share of unexpected, if not underdog, winners in recent seasons.
This weekend’s 500-miler was not one of those times. The only unexpected event that occurred, in fact within a boring race was the hard crash and seeming demise of Jimmie Johnson’s drive for six consecutive titles. In a race that proved to be the ultimate exercise in track position, those that started at the back ended up staying there as the cream rose to the top in NASCAR’s hometown race.
Score One for David
The battle for the 35th and final locked-in spot in the Sprint Cup field has turned into a barnburner in the closing races. J.J. Yeley scored a huge coup for Front Row Motorsports on Saturday night, charging an impressive 16 positions from his 38th-place starting spot to finish 22nd, his best Cup performance since Daytona last July and best result on an intermediate oval since Texas in the fall of 2007. A strong performance by Yeley had the No. 38 car running in 17th with just over 40 laps to go; had the team been able to nail their adjustment on the final run they may have scored a top 20. Still, the 22nd-place result allowed the team to close to only 16 points behind the No. 71 team for 35th in the owner standings.
Richard Petty Motorsports placed both of its cars in the top 10 for the second time in the last three races; sans A.J. Allmendinger’s 25th-place finish at Kansas, that’s five top 10s in the last three events. To put it in perspective, RPM hasn’t done that before in its history… even when they were a four-car team.
Score One for Goliath
The problem with this whole top-35 battle is its zero sum; as Front Row’s No. 38 team makes up ground, the future for TRG Motorsports’ flagship No. 71 gets dimmer. Hermie Sadler’s no doubt a veteran of the sport, but the decision to select a guy that’s made only one start in a Cup car this season for your team? Putting him behind the wheel at an intermediate track, with the locked-in status of the car on the line? That panned out as poorly as it sounded on paper; Sadler finished 33rd, 12 laps off the pace. Charlotte was none too kind to TRG this season, it seems, as Lally missed the Coca-Cola 600 back in May driving the No. 71. With the team needing backing for 2012, that sales pitch is going to suddenly get a whole lot harder if they keep losing owner points that way.
Speaking of TRG, why in the world did Andy Lally get moved to the team’s start-and-park No. 77 entry? The rookie is definitely still learning the stock car game and did have an ugly weekend at this track back in the spring; however, he’s the guy that’s been behind the wheel of the team’s car all year. Lally’s got the seat time, he’s at least somewhat familiar with the cars, and he did get the team back into the top 35 after falling out earlier in the season. To pull him from the team’s full-distance car in favor of a start-and-park ride… and to do it for a driver that’s been all but absent from stock car racing in recent seasons? That’s both a questionable decision and, to a degree, an objectionable one. Lally completed only 20 laps and finished 42nd, his career-worst Cup result.
Trevor Bayne was ready to do what Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. did for him during his health-related hiatus back in May… score a top-15 result in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 at Charlotte. Bayne qualified the car in 10th and while his run was not going quite as well as Stenhouse’s impressive 11th-place finish in the spring, Bayne was certainly due for a result better than his finish. However, due to a problem that the team speculated involved the fuel cell, Bayne’s car ran dry on lap 237 and died on the backstretch; the team lost multiple laps getting back up to speed and finished 31st, five laps down. The result was the worst for both Bayne and the Wood Brothers since their early-lap wreck at Daytona back in July.
Dave Blaney finished 35th after the motor expired in the No. 36 car, his fourth consecutive finish outside the top 30. Between engine failures and oil leaks, Tommy Baldwin Racing’s primary car has suffered three DNFs for problems under the hood in the last eight races. Casey Mears and the No. 13 team also had a motor expire late, and didn’t even get TV time for it (though ESPN did mention that the resulting smoke cloud was theirs.)
Start-and-parks were still aplenty, even at a track that doesn’t cost nearly as much to travel to as just about every other race on the schedule. Motor problems popped up over the course of 500 miles as did mechanical woes, and Andy Lally’s stock car education was abruptly interrupted for no real gain on behalf of TRG Motorsports.
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