On Saturday, the Nationwide Series returned to Auto Club Speedway for its second visit of the year. And once again, the race ended up being to Joe Gibbs Racing’s benefit, as Kyle Busch came out the victor. This win, the record 12th of the season for Busch in only 25 starts, gives him the season sweep at the relatively flat two-mile oval. It’s also Busch’s fourth win in the last five Auto Club races, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s sixth consecutive in the Nationwide Series at the Fontana, California racetrack.
However, this time, the Gibbs duo of Busch and Joey Logano did not dominate the proceedings. In fact, defending race winner Logano failed to lead a lap at all and finished fifth. Kevin Harvick, who started on the outside pole, appeared to have the fastest car, especially early on. However, his crew let him down multiple times on pit road, and these mistakes put Harvick back in the pack, losing track position and eventually leaving him struggling to come home third.
Until the last couple of runs, Harvick’s Jimmy John’s Chevrolet was fast enough to come back up through the field. However, when Busch was able to restart with the lead, he used his one big advantage to take control: superb restarts. In one lap, the NOS Energy Drink Toyota would pull out to a substantial advantage over the pack. It was not even in Turns 1 and 2 where Busch would pull away, but in Turns 3 and 4. Part of it was the car itself, but Busch undoubtedly played a role as well. As we’ve seen over the past few years in Camping World Truck Series races, Busch will drive deeper into a turn than almost anyone in NASCAR. This technique was how he was able to escape any real challenges over the final 22 laps on Saturday.
Point leader Brad Keselowski also had a great day on Saturday, leading 22 laps on the way to a second-place finish. This performance simply made the championship even more of a runaway than it already was. Keselowski’s lead is now 384 points over Carl Edwards, meaning with only five races to go, its a foregone conclusion that Keselowski will take the title. The only question is when he’ll clinch. Right now, if nothing changes, he’ll take the title in Texas. Penske Racing teammate Justin Allgaier remains the best Nationwide-only driver, fourth in the standings, but 826 points behind. Allgaier finished eighth to maintain his points position.
Last season, Mike Bliss begged, borrowed, and dealt his way to a fifth-place finish in points. However, this year, Bliss has spent almost the entire season driving the No. 40 for Key Motorsports. It’s a team that has struggled to find backing, but continues to run full races. In Fontana, the car was completely bare, with no sponsorship at all. Yet despite this lack of decals, Bliss qualified the No. 40 Chevrolet in the 16th position, stayed on the lead lap all day, and finished ninth for only the team’s second top 10 of the season. At the end of the race, Bliss was definitely coming on and could have even grabbed a couple of more positions had the race run a couple of laps longer.
Over at Roush Fenway Racing, Trevor Bayne had a much nicer second race in the No. 17 this week. Bayne qualified the unsponsored (yet still in the Con-Way Freight colors) Ford in the 20th position and brought it home 11th. With that run, Bayne reclaimed the eighth spot in points, overtaking Jason Leffler and Steve Wallace. Joey Logano in seventh (he was tenth entering the race) is only one point in front of Bayne.
Danica Patrick. OK, this isn’t even all that bad, but bear with me here. Patrick had a pretty good run on Saturday. She didn’t start out all that well, dropping back a few spots and eventually getting lapped. However, once Danica got a pit stop under her belt, she realized that the Tissot Chevrolet was actually quite decent. Once she got back onto the lead lap via a Lucky Dog, she was moving up the order and could possibly have finished in the top 10.
Here’s where the bad part comes in. Patrick was racing hard with James Buescher right after a late restart. Replays showed that Patrick might have pinched Buescher just a little bit exiting Turn 2. James appears to have not taken too kindly to this move. Despite having straightened out his wiggle, Buescher appeared to steer into Danica’s right rear, putting her head on into the wall and out of the race. Patrick was credited with a 30th-place finish, but you’ve got to wonder what might have been if this wreck did not happen. At the very least, she was likely going to reach the goal that she had set for herself entering the weekend, which was to finish in the top 15. At this point, I doubt that she’s going to reach the predictions that I made in December, but I hope she’s at least having some fun trying out NASCAR. Next year should be better, though. Puttin’ around in 37th just isn’t going to cut it.
And let’s not forget about Ricky Carmichael. Of course, Danica’s aforementioned crash didn’t just take out the No. 7. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was eliminated, and so was Carmichael, Buescher’s own teammate. The motocross veteran, in only his second career Nationwide Series start, was on the lead lap and running well in his Monster Energy Toyota. When Buescher and Patrick had contact to precipitate their incident on Lap 141, he was running on the inside all alone. However, Stenhouse turned sharp left to avoid the wreck and careened right into Carmichael’s No. 10, ending his day in the process. After the race, the rookie said that he was unhappy with getting caught up in someone’s else wreck again. A couple of hours later, Carmichael followed up with this “quote” on his Twitter feed: “Speechless. I mean really.” I guess someone showed him a replay after that interview of the crash. He had every reason to be unhappy, though.
Jason Leffler – Last year, Leffler was essentially the best Nationwide-only driver in the field. This season, it has been a struggle at times. Yes, Jason has five top 5 and 11 top-10 finishes on his resume, and sits in the top 10 in the standings, though he fell two spots to tenth this week. However, those top finishes are balanced out by nine DNF’s. Saturday’s exit was particularly ghastly because Leffler’s engine lasted a mere 15 laps before it failed. This relegated the No. 38 to a 37th-place finish, behind even some of the teams who started and parked.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Joe Nemechek
The 2010 season has generally been a struggle for the 1992 series champion. He has persevered with limited sponsorship on his No. 87 for much of the season and quite a healthy dose of bad luck as well. Nemechek has failed to finish four races due to a multitude of issues, including blown engines and crashes. The car itself has also failed to finish with Jarit Johnson and Antonio Perez behind the wheel, while Paulie Harraka’s Nationwide debut in Montreal was shortened by a crash (he finished 22 laps down.) On Saturday, Nemechek, running with backing from HostGator.com, qualified in 30th, raced up through the pack, avoided the crashes late and finished 14th. This run was clearly Nemechek’s best of the season, perhaps the beginning of some more good luck for the longtime campaigner.
The Final Word
- ESPN did not do any favors with going to a commercial break right as a crash broke out between Michael Annett and Brendan Gaughan on Saturday. Marty Reid mentioned when they returned from the local break that they came back as soon as they could. However, they could definitely have held off on taking the local break. I would say more, but then I would be pre-empting myself. More on these shenanigans in Talking NASCAR TV on Tuesday.
- The spin that Johnny Borneman III took down pit road late in the race was quite scary. Yes, he didn’t hit anything, but that type of thing always causes people’s hair to stand up on end. Wrecking on pit road is extremely rare today, especially since pit road speed limits were introduced in 1991, but it is still a dangerous place.
- Despite the October date, this was still a very warm race weekend. I would argue that the late March date for Auto Club Speedway’s lone race weekend next year will be ideal for racing and good crowds. Let’s just hope that they show up.
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