The Frontstretch: Nationwide Breakdown: Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 by Kevin Rutherford -- Monday August 19, 2013

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Nationwide Breakdown: Nationwide Children's Hospital 200

Kevin Rutherford · Monday August 19, 2013


It’s never been easy for one team to completely dominate the win category in a given season’s road course races, whether it entailed two or three road races in the Sprint Cup or Nationwide series.

But that’s exactly what Penske Racing accomplished in the 2013 Nationwide Series season — and with the same team, no less. After wins by AJ Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski at Road America and Watkins Glen, respectively, the No. 22 team exited the inaugural race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with yet another dominating performance, Allmendinger leading 73 of 94 laps to go 2-for-2 in his series starts this year.

That’s eight wins for the Penske team in 2013 and nine overall, counting Sam Hornish Jr.‘s lone win early in the season. Eight out of 22 ties the team in the win category with the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 chiefly driven by Kyle Busch, its primary competition for the owners championship. The Gibbs team found itself inside the top five on the last lap, but Owen Kelly’s last-lap spin relegated the team to a 23rd-place finish, now 22 points behind the Penske team in the championship standings.

Allmendinger’s main competition came from Michael McDowell. McDowell, driving the Gibbs organization’s part-time No. 18, led from the pole for eight laps, but never made it back to the point. He still worked his way up to second by race’s end and had a shot on the green-white-checkered finish, but all told, Allmendinger’s car was simply faster.

Kelly’s final lap of frustrations — he was chasing McDowell for second — opened the door for Sam Hornish Jr. to take third. In doing so, Hornish took back the points lead from Austin Dillon, who could only manage a 21st-place finish after arriving from Michigan and the Cup race. In a testament to how volatile the standings have been in 2013, Hornish now leads by 13 points over Elliott Sadler, with Regan Smith and Dillon tied for third, 15 points back.

Max Papis and Brian Vickers climbed fourth and fifth, respectively, while Sadler, Marcos Ambrose, Justin Allgaier, Trevor Bayne and Jeremy Clements rounded out the top 10.

The Good

-That crowd! As an Ohioan, I can attest to the fact that we do love our sports and will often pack stadiums, racetracks and arenas full regardless of the game being played. That was shown at Eldora for the Truck Series nearly a month ago and continued with a Mid-Ohio crowd estimated at around 100,000. Chalk some of that up to it being the inaugural event in both instances, but don’t be surprised if large crowds continue to turn out in the future.

-We already knew he was a solid road racer, but it’s always nice to see Michael McDowell running well. The Cup start-and-parker won the pole in Joe Gibbs’s No. 18 and led at first before Allmendinger climbed aboard the glory train. After the disappointment that was McDowell’s Road America race, a second-place finish is still great, especially after a season of mostly parking in the Cup Series. Would it be too much to hope for McDowell full time in the No. 20 after Brian Vickers moves back to Cup? …yeah, probably.

-Speaking of Brian Vickers, dude’s on fire. Months ago, many of us were wondering what on earth was up with the Joe Gibbs driver and former Cup winner, who was expected to contend for wins and the series title from the get-go. It’s now August and Vickers still (!) doesn’t have that win, but he’s top-fiving his competitors to death, kind of in the way Matt Crafton can’t finish outside the top 10 in the Truck Series. His fifth-place finish Saturday makes it six top fives in a row for Vickers, who has climbed into fifth in the points, just 18 points back. Look out, everyone.

The Bad

-I realize taking a premier Cup ride is alluring, but I can’t help but think it might not have been a great idea for Austin Dillon to jump back and forth between Michigan and Ohio this weekend. Jason Bowles did admirably (adequately?) filling in while Dillon was in Michigan, but starting in the back definitely messed with the former championship leader, who was able to gain track position here and there but ended up just outside the top 20. As it’s been shown time and time again, a points deficit like 15 isn’t going to be the end-all-be-all, but one has to question his dedication to this championship hunt.

-Who expected a first-lap incident? Everyone? Yeah, that ended up about right. Kyle Larson had a great qualifying effort, starting fourth, but got spun into the tire barrier on lap one by Nelson Piquet Jr., knocking him three laps into the hole. He actually ended up fighting back onto the lead lap and was near the front at the end of the race before getting dumped again on the last restart and falling back to 14th. Poor guy.

-His Mid-Ohio race caps off a mildly disappointing 2013 NASCAR season for Owen Kelly. He raced twice in Gibbs equipment and got a one-off Cup deal at Watkins Glen last week, but his fourth at Road America earlier in the season was full of could’ve-beens and said Cup race ended in a 24th-place finish. He ended up one spot better Saturday, but only after a final lap that saw him spin out while trying to steal second from Michael McDowell. Given the No. 54’s success this year, you’d‘ve thought Kelly might have been one of the main threats to Penske’s road course dominance. Instead, he exits this season (barring any unforeseen starts) with a lot less to be excited about than one might’ve expected.

The Ugly

-There was a lot of expectations riding on Marcos Ambrose entering the race; after all, he was tied with Ron Fellows for the most road course wins in series history and was making a one-off excursion into the series to see if he could knock off Mid-Ohio on his list of road courses he hasn’t won at. He ended up finishing seventh, but that was after sustaining damage and having problems in pit lane. That has to be a big disappointment to a guy who ended up unable to win a road course in NASCAR this season, unless he throws in a surprise entry for the Truck race in Canada.

-Nelson Piquet Jr. certainly had a take-no-prisoners approach to his ascent to the front Saturday, but it all backfired with a spin on the green-white-checkered restart while running inside the top five. Not only did the spin knock him all the way back to 27th; it also didn’t make him any friends. At all. I guess that’s karma?

-The nearby city of Ashland nearly has one of its own in the race, with Tim Cowen entered in Scott Deware’s No. 86, attempting to make his first Nationwide Series race after running a handful of Truck events in the early 2000s. His practice speeds indicated he probably would have qualified, but a practice crash in the final session wrecked his team’s only car, and that was that. It’s the way of the small team to sometimes not have a backup car, but it was sad nonetheless to see Cowen unable to at least make an attempt at a race in his backyard.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Jeremy Clements. Rough season for Clements this year? For sure. His 10th-place finish might not even be his best of 2013 (that distinction goes to his ninth at Talladega), but at a completely new track against big guns and ringers alike, a top 10 is huge.

Ill-Gotten Gains:

Start-and-parkers occupied two of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $22,813 in purse money.

Cup regulars scored two of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied two of the 40 starting positions and took home $62,700 in purse money.

Best Career Finishes: Michael McDowell (2nd, ties), Anthony Gandon (28th), Alx Danielsson (37th), Ryan Ellis (38th)

The Final Word

Chalk up a victory for road course racing this season. The Nationwide Series put on a hell of a show at every such venue it attended in 2013, whether it was the familiar Watkins Glen, the relatively-new Road America or brand-new Mid-Ohio.

That has to be encouraging for other road courses on the continent. Sure, things may not change anytime soon, but given NASCAR’s recent penchant for trying some new things with its lower series, coupled with big attendance for Mid-Ohio and rave reviews from fans and drivers alike, seeing road races become less of a novelty and more of a bona fide part of the schedule might be in the cards one day for a series like the Nationwide circuit.

“We need more road races! Fun to watch! #nascar,” tweeted Kevin Harvick at the finish of the Mid-Ohio event Saturday, and frankly, I have to agree.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
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08/19/2013 12:18 AM

That was a great race! Even though not much passing without taking someone out. The most interesting thing I learned was, don’t matter who drives that #22, It is a winner!

08/20/2013 01:51 PM

Cup Driver. BORING.