The Frontstretch: Nuts For Nationwide: Fellows, Papis Lead Experienced Hopefuls At Mid-Ohio by Kevin Rutherford -- Friday August 16, 2013

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It’s not every day NASCAR visits a new track. In fact, generally the sport’s lucky if it throws one new speedway onto its schedule over the top three series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Truck), providing a healthy break from the status quo, a new circuit possibly unfamiliar to the average NASCAR fan.

This year’s been a little different. By season’s end, the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series will have visited three new tracks between them, all of which are also new to NASCAR as a whole. The Truck Series made its historic trek to the dirt track of Ohio’s Eldora Speedway nearly a month ago, and will add a date at Canada’s Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, marking a return to road courses for the trucks.

Max Papis got attention filling in for Tony Stewart last week but he has a good chance in the Nationwide race this weekend at Mid-Ohio in a Richard Childress Racing machine.

The Nationwide Series’ only addition in 2013 is also a road course, though its drivers will be staying in the continental United States this time around. For the second time, a track in Ohio is getting the NASCAR treatment (and as an Ohio native who lives next to one and drives past the other occasionally, I couldn’t be more proud of my home state for once), as the road course at Mid-Ohio makes its NASCAR debut with this weekend’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200.

To be clear: Mid-Ohio, a 13-turn course outside Lexington, has been a sports car racing track in its 51-year history. That said, the circuit has also hosted a variety of open wheel series, most recently the IndyCar Series since 2007 and, before that, CART from 1980 to 2003.

With the variety of racing already offered at Mid-Ohio prior to NASCAR’s entry, there was bound to be at least a handful of drivers who have some experience ontrack.

Sure enough, the entry list delivered.

While a wide array of racers entered or hired because of their Mid-Ohio prowess didn’t exactly turn up, a few of the usual suspects in regards to Nationwide Series road course races will be gunning for victory in the series’ final right turns of the season, some of whom have extensive experience at the track.

Ron Fellows is always a threat at any road course, but the Nationwide Series’ Mid-Ohio debut could spell success for the Canadian ringer. After all, he’s won at the racetrack. A lot.

Fellows’s extensive road course experience includes multiple starts at the track in the American Le Mans sports car series, including wins at the track in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. Add to that a Grand-Am start in 2005, though he didn’t fare as well there, finishing a mere 13th.

If you can believe it, it’s also the Canadian’s first start of 2013 in the Nationwide Series, a series in which he’s won four races. His NASCAR appearances in 2013 have been limited to two starts in the Sprint Cup Series, but with a lower budget organization in Circle Sport Racing. This time, he’s gearing up in JR Motorsports’ No. 5, the team with which he won his last Nationwide race in 2008.

The chief shout-out besides that for Fellows goes to Max Papis. Papis, who’s been in the news lately after his high-profile fill-in for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen in Cup last weekend, gets the nod for Richard Childress Racing for the third (and, currently, final) time of 2013, though he struggled (finishes of 31st and 17th) in his first two starts.

As with Fellows, Papis has experience on his side. He was in CART while the series visited the track, rattling off three top-10 finishes. The Italian was also an occasional Grand-Am competitor at Mid-Ohio, scoring a win in 2004 with a car co-piloted by Scott Pruett (who, by the way, would have been a great choice for a substitute this weekend).

As they’re both driving elite cars in the series and have a wealth of experience at the track, Fellows and Papis are undeniably two of my favorites for the weekend.

However, they’re not the only ones with some past showings at the track. For instance, A.J. Allmendinger has raced here and there at Mid-Ohio, though not since 2003. Sam Hornish Jr. finished 14th in the 2007 IndyCar race there. Michael McDowell has a fourth in the Grand-Am Series. Tomy Drissi finished 14th in a 2006 Grand-Am race. There’s even Tim Cowen, a local guy from just up I-75 in Ashland, Ohio. Cowen has done quite a bit of racing on the track, including, like McDowell, a fourth in a Grand-Am race, his coming in 2001.

The allure of a track at which so many of the entered drivers have little-to-no experience is captivating, just as the Truck Series’ stop at Eldora last month ended up being in the weeks leading up. There’s a score of other road course-specializing drivers, such as Australians Marcos Ambrose and Owen Kelly, entered as well, but on Saturday, keep an eye on the drivers that do have proven results here in Ohio. They could be the ones pacing the field when the checkered flag falls.

Quick Hits:

-It’s a rarity with this column’s run date, but given that the trip to Mid-Ohio is the series’ first, two practice sessions have already been run at the track. Michael McDowell paced the field the first practice with a lap of 85.699, while A.J. Allmendinger was top of the pack for practice No. 2, running an 85.074. Sam Hornish Jr., Owen Kelly, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top five for the first practice, while Parker Kligerman, Kelly, McDowell and Hornish were tops in the second.

-Eric McClure has been hospitalized with an undisclosed illness, which will force his withdrawal from this weekend’s inaugural Nationwide Series race at Mid-Ohio. McClure, driver of TriStar Motorsports’ No. 14, also missed time in the seat for five races in 2012, though that was due to injury. As in 2012, Jeff Green will pilot McClure’s car in his absence. Chase Miller drove Green’s usual No. 10 in Mid-Ohio practice Thursday.

-Marcos Ambrose is making his first Nationwide Series start of 2013 at Mid-Ohio, a track at which he’s never raced. Since he’ll be doing double duty with the Sprint Cup Series at Michigan, Ryan Truex will practice and qualify Ambrose’s No. 9 on Friday and Saturday before the Australian returns for the race.

Looking Ahead: Mid-Ohio

Stats: Entered Drivers

Most stats usually featured not applicable for Mid-Ohio as it is the inaugural race at the track.

Nationwide Season Debuts: Ron Fellows, Marcos Ambrose, Tomy Drissi, Alx Danielsson, Tim Cowen

Nationwide Series Debuts: Alx Danielsson, Tim Cowen

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Michael in SoCal
08/16/2013 11:10 AM
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It is nice to see new tracks brought into Nascar. Now if Nascar could just get rid of races at the Dull Ds…