In a Nutshell: Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 team continued its utter dominance of the Nationwide Series in 2008; this time, it was with Tony Stewart behind the wheel. The marquee driver in the JGR stable stayed out of trouble and held off good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Aaron’s 312 at Talladega Saturday afternoon. The win was Stewart’s third of the season and the fourth for the No. 20 team, both of which lead the series in 2008.
Stewart was the fastest car all race long, leading five times for 81 laps. Earnhardt Jr., in his own No. 5 Chevrolet, was the only car able to seriously challenge Stewart, but could never get a good enough run to pass the No. 20 in the closing laps. Earnhardt finished sixth.
The race was marred by the “Big One” on lap 72, a wreck involving at least 15 drivers that changed the complexion of the event. The crash began when the No. 61 of Kevin Lepage merged onto the racetrack in turn 1 before getting up to speed. The first few cars in the lead pack missed him, but a trapped Carl Edwards barreled into the back of Lepage, sparking the wreck. Lepage refused to acknowledge full responsibility for the crash during the broadcast, but issued an official apology Sunday for not following NASCAR’s blend rule.
An earlier two-car wreck was also notable, for all the wrong reasons. Dario Franchitti lost a tire going into turn 4 and spun to the bottom of the track before being slammed in the driver’s side door by the No. 91 of Larry Gunselman well after the caution flag waved. Franchitti was taken to a local hospital and treated for a fractured ankle; because of his injuries, the Scotsman was unable to race his No. 40 car in the Sprint Cup Series. He was replaced by David Stremme.
Who Should Have Won: Stewart. Stewart was the class of the field for the entire race, and had little trouble maintaining the lead. The Cup Series driver managed to score the win despite precariously leading the race during its final restart late in the running; after a caution for debris, the final segment began with just five laps remaining. With the win, Stewart has the opportunity to become the first driver since Earnhardt Jr. in 2003 to sweep all three Nationwide Series restrictor-plate races should he run in the series at Daytona in July.
Stremme scored his fifth top 10 of the season at Talladega, a season and career best second-place finish. Stremme ran with the leaders for the entire race on Saturday, moving the No. 64 team back into the top 15 in owner points (13th). Stremme’s stellar run caught the eye of his former team, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Stremme was selected to fill in for the injured Franchitti in the Cup race the following day. Stremme had a tremendous run in that one, too, leading laps and challenging for the win before a last-lap wreck left him with a 28th-place finish.
Nationwide Series regulars chalked up their best collective performance of the season, taking four spots in the top five and seven in the top 10. Stremme finished second, Bobby Hamilton Jr. was third (his career-best at Talladega), Jason Leffler came home fourth, Mark Green was fifth (the best-ever finish for ML Motorsports), Mike Bliss seventh, Scott Wimmer ninth (with a damaged racecar), and Mike Wallace 10th. Kertus Davis also scored a 12th-place finish, his best run in the series since finishing 10th at Talladega in 2005.
Better Luck Next Time
The victims of Lepage’s mistake were numerous, but there were several real heartbreakers in the melee. ST Motorsports teammates Marcos Ambrose and Kelly Bires both were taken out while enjoying strong runs, while Kenny Wallace and his underdog Jay Robinson Racing team were running in the top 20 — with a large contingent from sponsor U.S. Border Patrol on hand — before being heavily damaged (Wallace finished 30th). But the biggest loser from the wreck was Steve Wallace, who was running in the top 10 and challenging for the lead just before Lepage blended in. Despite the poor finish, though, Wallace is showing a tremendous improvement in patience and intelligence on the race track this season.
DJ Kennington was a surprise in practice and qualifying, posting a top-10 practice run and a career best 17th-place qualifying effort. Kennington was running strong in the race, too, and moved into the top 10 after dodging the Big One. But a good finish was not to be for Kennington and his No. 81 team; Kennington lost a tire in turn 1 and spun into the wall late in the going, also collecting fellow underdog Brett Rowe.
Underdog Performer of the Race
A few weeks back, I wrote a column about the re-emergence of field filling in the Nationwide Series. This weekend at Talladega, three of these teams ran the Aaron’s 312 in its entirety, posted stellar finishes, and deserve a shout out. Morgan Shepherd ran in the top 10 for a number of laps, finishing on the lead lap in 13th place. Plate-racing veteran Donnie Neuenberger finished 14th in the Means Racing No. 52, and Mike Harmon scored the best Nationwide Series finish for Elite-2 Racing to date with a 17th-place run. Of particular note was Shepherd’s strong performance; even before the field was thinned out by the big wreck, he was a top-20 car and running competitively in the draft. Well done, guys; keep it up!
“Purse Snatcher” Watch
11 of 43 starting positions in the Aaron’s 312 went to Sprint Cup regulars.
121 of the 430 starting positions in Nationwide Series races this season have gone to Sprint Cup regulars.
Three Sprint Cup regulars finished in the top 10 of the Aaron’s 312.
Nine of 10 Nationwide Series races have been won by Sprint Cup regulars this season.
Five of the top 10 in Nationwide Series points are Sprint Cup regulars.
“As a child, my dream had always been to race on superspeedways. Racing in NASCAR has allowed this to happen, and I have a career that I love. However, on Saturday afternoon every racer’s concern was realized, as I caused “The Big One.” After reviewing the tapes of the accident, I realize I need to apologize to NASCAR, the car owners, my fellow competitors, and most importantly… the fans. I made a huge driver error by blending onto the racetrack in the wrong area. This caused a multi-car accident and changed the outcome of the race for many teams. I’m so thankful that no one was hurt considering the number of cars involved. In over 25 years of racing, this was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made behind the wheel of a stock car, and I promise that it will not happen again. It is such a terrible feeling knowing that NASCAR, the car owners, fellow competitors, and NASCAR fans think this was a “bonehead” move and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking of me in these terms. Speaking yesterday before reviewing the tapes of the accident made me look like a “heel,” and there is not a single person to blame for this huge mistake except myself. I have worked very hard over the years to gain the respect of NASCAR, the owners, competitors, and the fans, and it will take a long time to gain it back after what happened. Once again, I want to apologize to everyone involved. If I could replay the race, I would have used better judgment and let the pack go by before blending onto the racetrack.” – A statement from Specialty Racing driver Kevin Lepage on his involvement in Saturday’s “Big One”
Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to the Richmond International Raceway for short tracking under the lights this Friday, May 2nd. Coverage of the Lipton Tea 250 begins on ESPN2 at 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 on your local MRN affiliate.