The Frontstretch: Nuts for Nationwide: Road America Brings Great Chance For Ringer Victory by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday June 21, 2013

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What a race, Road America.

Since its inception on the Nationwide Series schedule, in 2010 the event at Elkhart Lake has been one of the most anticipated races of the season, for a multitude of reasons.

For one thing, it’s the first road course on the Nationwide Series schedule, as well as the first such one on the calendar of any of the three major NASCAR series. For those tired of watching cars and trucks turn left and only left for a few months, it’s the first in a weekend of beautiful respite (the Sprint Cup Series visits Sonoma this weekend). Plus, the track is known simply for providing exciting racing — which is, of course, a tenet for which one looks in any racetrack.

AJ Allmendinger returns to Penske Racing’s NASCAR operation this weekend to make his stock car debut at Road America. You can bet he’ll be hungry for the win.

And last year, Road America provided something else that’s bound to get people talking: a win by a part-time, kinda road course ringer driver.

In 2012, Nelson Piquet, Jr. led 19 laps and bested Michael McDowell on his way to his first NASCAR victory, scoring a popular win that saw a driver with a definite road course background take the title from the Nationwide regulars.

This year, that could very well happen again.

In all, 13 drivers are set to make their 2013 series debuts at Road America, one of the highest numbers of the season so far. The vast majority on the list are drivers that could be termed road course specialists, racers either hired by teams to turn in positive results at a twisting track or bringing their own cars to try to sneak in a good finish on the series regulars. Add Max Papis, who debuted this season at Iowa, to the tally as well; when he first entered NASCAR, it was as a ringer of sorts, at 2006’s Nationwide Watkins Glen race for McGill Motorsports.

So, who’s got the shot at victory?

You have to give Owen Kelly the time of day. Name sound familiar? Last year, Kelly practiced and qualified Kyle Busch’s No. 54 at Montreal, winning a practice in the process. The 36-year-old Australian actually got the chance to race in the series in 2010 for Baker Curb Racing, posting fifth at — hey, look! — Road America.

This year, Kelly is driving for Kyle Busch once again, only this time it’s with Joe Gibbs Racing and Busch isn’t going to be doing any driving. Kelly has a rare opportunity, a chance to drive one of the series’ most dominant cars. If you were coming into NASCAR for the first time all year, wouldn’t you want to be driving a car that’s won six times this year alone?

But keep an eye on Papis, too. Though his Iowa race a few weeks back was less than stellar (31st after an accident), his start at Road America last season warranted a fourth-place result. He’s back with the same Richard Childress Racing team as that race, and has already had some work with the team in 2013. That’s one advantage he has over Kelly: familiarity.

Wait, there’s more! Shout-out to another guy who’s making his first series start in 2013: Michael McDowell.

Like Kelly, McDowell has the benefit of driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the hottest teams in the series. Like Papis, he’s had some major experience with the team, having driven a handful of races in the No. 18 last year. Nelson Piquet, Jr. may have been the winner in 2012, but McDowell was oh-so-close to his first NASCAR triumph. That proximity to victory, plus it being his first time back in a Gibbs car after a year with Phil Parsons in the Cup Series, points toward a hard-working McDowell on Saturday.

Don’t forget about Johnny O’Connell or Billy Johnson, either. The former, a longtime GM factory driver and sports car racer, makes his Nationwide debut for JR Motorsports in its No. 5, while the latter returns to Roush Fenway Racing after a successful trial with the team the past three years.

But the driver to watch is AJ Allmendinger.

Allmendinger returns to the Nationwide Series for the first time in five years, with his former NASCAR (and current IndyCar) team, Penske Racing. It’s by far the best opportunity Allmendinger’s been given in NASCAR this season, a redemption of sorts with his former team on a stock car level. Now, Allmendinger may never have scored even a top-10 finish in the series, with an average result of 21st, but Road America does mark his first road course event in the series. And you can bet he’s going to be hungry. Really hungry.

That’s not even counting other ringers, like Andrew Ranger, Kenny Habul, Kyle Kelley, Kevin O’Connell and John Young.

In theory, all the aforementioned drivers could be up front by the end of the day, duking it out for Road America victory. All are in good cars, and all have a proven track record of road course racing prowess.

It’s gonna be a good Saturday in Wisconsin. Get ready.

Looking Ahead: Road America

Stats (Entered Drivers):

Most Wins: Reed Sorenson, Nelson Piquet, Jr. (1)
Most Top Fives: Brendan Gaughan, Reed Sorenson, Nelson Piquetm Jr., Max Papis, Michael McDowell, Owen Kelly, Elliott Sadler, Mike Wallace (1)
Most Top 10s: Brendan Gaughan, Reed Sorenson, Nelson Piquet, Jr., Max Papis, Michael McDowell, Owen Kelly, Elliott Sadler, Mike Wallace, Cole Whitt, Sam Hornish, Jr., Andrew Ranger, Brian Scott, Trevor Bayne, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier (1)
Most Poles: Michael McDowell, Nelson Piquet, Jr. (1)

Top Average Finish: Reed Sorenson (1.0, 1 race), Nelson Piquet Jr. (1.0, 1), Brendan Gaughan (3.0, 1), Owen Kelly (5.0, 1), Sam Hornish, Jr. (5.0, 1)

Road America Nationwide Debuts: Landon Cassill, Johnny O’Connell, Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Derek White, Kyle Larson, James Buescher, Joey Gase, Travis Pastrana, Parker Kligerman, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dexter Stacey, Alex Bowman

Season Debuts: Johnny O’Connell, Billy Johnson, Michael McDowell, Brendan Gaughan, AJ Allmendinger, Derek White, John Young, James Buescher, Andrew Ranger, Owen Kelly, Kevin O’Connell, Kenny Habul, Kyle Kelley

Nationwide Debuts: Johnny O’Connell

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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06/21/2013 07:08 AM

And don’t forget AJ has a victory at Road America in Champ Car. Should be a great day if the rain holds off.