It appears that a lot of people in the know expected what happened on Saturday at Watkins Glen International to go down. Nelson Piquet, Jr. stated during his press conference (as highest finishing rookie in ninth) that the Penske cars were very fast during a test session at Virginia International Raceway.
As soon as the first few laps of practice on Friday afternoon, it was pretty clear that Penske Racing’s Fords were going to be hard to beat. Sam Hornish, Jr. and Brad Keselowski were one-two in the one hour session, with Joey Logano in the one-off No. 48 fifth. Kyle Busch in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota was fourth quickest behind Regan Smith, but still managed to establish himself as the primary competition for Penske Racing in Saturday’s race.
Qualifying saw Penske’s cars on the inside of Rows 1, 2 and 3, while Busch was on the outside pole. However, Busch’s crash on the first lap eliminated him from any contention. Regan Smith simply didn’t have anything for the Penske cars at all.
Hornish led early from the pole, but Keselowski was able to get by on Lap 16 and take the lead. Following a round of pit stops, Penske’s cars were 1-2-3 and looked as if they were going to be able to stay there.
Kyle Larson’s blown engine/broken transmission brought out the yellow on Lap 44 and inadvertently decided the race. Joey Logano, running third behind Keselowski and Hornish, decided to take a gamble and pit with 38 laps to go. Logano’s team did this knowing that they would need a number of caution laps in order to make it to the finish.
Granted, Logano was not alone in using that strategy, but he was the only one to actually try to run to the finish. All of the other drivers that pitted during the fourth yellow stopped again during the final yellow, which flew for metal debris in the groove of the Inner Loop on Lap 59.
The rest of the leaders made their final stops under green with about 30 laps to go and could go to the finish, while Logano assumed the lead. The yellow brought those drivers right up to Logano. Shortly after the restart, Keselowski was able to get by Logano and take over the lead.
Hornish followed Keselowski past Logano shortly afterwards, and the Penske duo pulled away and settled the race amongst themselves. Hornish could not keep with Keselowski’s pace and was forced to settle for second as Keselowski held to win his fourth consecutive Nationwide Series start.
Behind Keselowski and Hornish was Brian Vickers in third and Smith fourth. Elliott Sadler rounded out the top-5. Parker Kligerman followed up his third at Road America with a sixth-place finish. Justin Allgaier was seventh and Cole Whitt was eighth. Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Trevor Bayne rounded out the top-10.
Hornish’s second-place finish along with Austin Dillon’s 12th means that Dillon’s points lead is down to just three points, while Smith is third, five out of the lead. Sadler is 12 out of the lead and Vickers 18 back in fifth.
Even though Penske Racing entered three cars, only one of them really matters in terms of the driver’s title, and that is the one driven by Sam Hornish, Jr. Even though Hornish comes from an open wheel background, he was never particularly all that strong on road courses when he was racing in IndyCar. However, since coming to the Nationwide Series, Hornish has a very good record on the twisties (five top-5 finishes in seven starts). Saturday, Hornish broke the track record, put his car on pole and stayed up front almost all day on his way to second.
Regan Smith may have been dreading the two race stretch of road courses on the Nationwide schedule when he signed on to drive the No. 7 TaxSlayer Chevrolet. He is not known as a road racer by anyone’s measure. Even car owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. downplayed Smith’s chances during his press conference on Friday. However, Smith put together the best road racing performance of his entire career at Watkins Glen. Smith was in the top-5 in practice on Friday, qualified in the top-5 and managed to finish there as well. He’s now five points behind Dillon in the standings and has some momentum going into Mid-Ohio.
Also, there’s that open Sprint Cup seat after Watkins Glen that needs someone to place his buns in until Tony Stewart returns from his broken leg. Smith has been discussed as a potential substitute for Stewart, along with a number of others including Dillon.
Joey Logano was one of the fastest drivers on track all weekend. However, he and his team decided to make a radical strategy move to pit on Lap 44 and try to go to the end from there. With a 22 gallon fuel cell, that would have been a pretty good move. Maybe even the only move to make. With an 18-19 gallon fuel cell, it put Logano on a fuel conservation run to the finish with the knowledge that they needed multiple full-course cautions in order to reach the finish.
Logano got one of those yellows when a piece of metal debris (legitimate debris, mind you) was spotted in the groove in the Inner Loop and run over by Derek White. That bought Logano one of his cautions, but brought Keselowski right up to him. Shortly after the restart, Keselowski pounced and took the lead. Without another yellow, Logano was still looking good to complete a Penske 1-2-3, but the fuel cell ran dry just as the white flag came out. Without a prayer of getting back around to the pits, Logano pulled off just before the entrance to Turn 2. He was credited with a 21st-place finish.
Saturday was the Nationwide Series debut of Anthony Gandon, a 23-year old regular in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, the first driver from that particular series to ever compete in the series. In practice, Gandon was reasonably competitive until he spun in the Inner Loop and chunked the front end of his Qolix Chevrolet.
Even though on the surface, it didn’t appear as if the car was damaged all that badly, there was enough damage underneath that the team had to go to a backup car. Once that happened, Watkins Glen quickly became a lost weekend for the young Frenchman. The team was unable to get the backup car (a Ford Mustang designed to race on ovals) ready for qualifying, or even the start of the race. Gandon didn’t really turn a lap in anger until 50 laps had already been completed. He was eventually classified in 32nd, 55 laps down. Gandon will get another chance next weekend at Mid-Ohio, with a car designed for turning left and right.
For Mike Wallace, Saturday’s race all but didn’t even start before he was out for the day. Wallace qualified a decent 23rd, right alongside his teammate Landon Cassill. On the first lap, Wallace was right behind Andrew Ranger when Kyle Busch spun into the tire barrier right in front of him. When Busch’s car came to rest on the track, Wallace ended up having to take evasive action to avoid a rapidly slowing Ranger. That evasive move put him right into Busch’s left front corner, heavily damaging his unsponsored No. 01 Chevrolet and putting him out for the day, credited with a 40th-place finish with zero laps completed.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Cole Whitt for TriStar Motorsports
There was not all that much attention shown toward any of the teams in the Nationwide Garage Annex in Watkins Glen not running the No. 48 Discount Tire Ford. However, Cole Whitt earned himself an eighth-place finish earlier this season at Road America.
On Saturday, Whitt qualified his Gold Bond Toyota a decent 17th and quietly put himself right into the thick of the battle late in the race to earn another eighth-place finish. For TriStar Motorsports, it was a great end to an otherwise horrid day. Mike Bliss spent time behind the wall early and finished 27th, 11 laps down. Meanwhile, Eric McClure was running on the lead lap all day until he broke a tie rod on the final restart. He would eventually finish 28th.
Start-and-parkers occupied five of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $50,798 in prize money.
Sprint Cup regulars occupied four of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, won the race and took home $79,925 in prize money.
The Final Word
Simply put, Penske Racing was an unusually strong force on Saturday. Kyle Busch had the best chance at stopping Penske from winning, but he found the tires on the first lap and struggled just to finish the race. Since Joey Logano was driving a one-off entry (No. 48) with no chance for points, he was free to do whatever he wanted in order to win. The team’s alternate strategy almost paid off with a good finish, but he needed just one more yellow to make it work.
Points leader Austin Dillon is still quite deficient on road courses. Saturday, he did well to not spin out or fall victim to the issues of others. However, he did miss the Inner Loop at one point in the race, dropping six positions as a result. Hornish’s second-place finish cut the points lead to three and five drivers are within 18 points.
Next week is the inaugural Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Very few drivers that are expected to be on the entry list will have ever raced there. The course is a somewhat narrow, windy circuit with lots of elevation change and a couple of blind corners. It should be very interesting to see what happens, and how that might affect the point standings.
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