In a Nutshell: Unlike last weekend at Montreal, Marcos Ambrose did not have the best car in the field. But unlike last weekend, Ambrose capitalized during Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen, scoring his first career NASCAR victory with a win in the Zippo 200. Ambrose ran in the third position for most of the event’s second half, stalking a furious battle between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton that saw both Cup stars forced to pit with less than 10 laps to go for fuel. Ambrose then cruised to an easy win, which also catapulted his No. 59 into the top 10 in Nationwide Series points.
Kyle Busch scored a strong runner-up finish for D’Hondt Motorsports in the team’s first Nationwide Series race of the season, with Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and polesitter Dario Franchitti rounding out the top five.
It was an eventful day in the points standings, with leader Clint Bowyer and then second-place driver Carl Edwards making heavy contact with each other in turn 1 roughly halfway into the race. The damage incurred by both cars relegated Bowyer to a disappointing 23rd-place finish, with Edwards not far behind in 25th. Brad Keselowski capitalized on their misfortunes, scoring a sixth-place run and moving back into second in the Nationwide standings — only 128 points behind Bowyer.
Who Should Have Won: Johnson. Johnson came to Watkins Glen on a mission, and was only a few laps of fuel short of accomplishing it. While Johnson failed to score a decent finish, his No. 48 car was the class of the field, leading 17 laps and able to seemingly pass at will in traffic. But after the gas tank ran dry, the fastest car of Saturday’s race wound up a disappointing 29th.
Making his first race start since being named the driver of the No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing entry in the Sprint Cup series, Brad Coleman delivered a stout performance in his Baker Curb Motorsports entry. After being involved in an early wreck that sent the front end of his Ford airborne, Coleman and his No. 27 team stayed clean and played strategy well enough to score a 10th-place finish, the first top 10 for the team since Las Vegas in March. Coleman’s team desperately needed a good run as a shot in the arm, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can capitalize next week — especially with crew chief Shawn Parker departing.
Franchitti may only be making limited appearances in NASCAR for the remainder of the season, but if Saturday was any indication, he may well make some noise. Franchitti scored his first career pole in qualifying, and transferred that success into Saturday’s race. Franchitti ran smooth all day long, leading 18 laps and finishing fifth, his first career top five in NASCAR competition. Franchitti will run the next two races in the No. 40, and one can’t help but question if the momentum will continue and possibly lead Franchitti to run more Nationwide races than originally scheduled.
Anyone that questioned the championship mettle of Keselowski has less to talk about after the performance of the No. 88 team this weekend. Keselowski, who has failed to shine brightly in his previous road race starts this season, seized the opportunity to gain ground in the standings after Bowyer and Edwards tangled. The JR Motorsports driver ran a smart race more than anything else, taking no unnecessary risks and parlaying a surprising qualifying run into a sixth-place finish. As a result, Keselowski moved back into second in the standings and gained significant ground on Bowyer. The No. 88 team is ready to throw a wrench into Bowyer’s plans of cakewalking to a Nationwide Series title, and runs like Saturday prove that they are able.
Better Luck Next Time
To say Specialty Racing has hit hard times is putting it politely; the team’s rash of mechanical problems has now become a pandemic. Their team’s struggles lasted all day Saturday, as starting driver Stan Barrett posted one of the slowest qualifying times of the session in his No. 61 Ford — miring the team back in the field to start. From there, the elder Barrett lasted only nine laps before needing a relief driver. The team turned to regular driver Brandon Whitt, who had start and parked the No. 62 earlier in the event. Whitt got the car back on track, but the No. 61 completed only 61 of the 80 laps run after experiencing transmission troubles. It’s hard not to notice how much this team’s performance has slipped since the release of Kevin Lepage — and Lepage’s lawsuit, first reported by Frontstretch, threatens to endanger the organization’s future. Not a good last month for this team…
Steve Wallace scored solid runs in both previous road course races this season, but consecutive top 10s were not in the cards for his No. 66 team. Though Wallace again ran competitively throughout the day, fuel was an issue for him, and he ended up out of gas late in the race well away from pit road. Wallace finished 28th, with his Dodge parked on the grass alongside the track’s backstretch short chute.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Brian Simo and Front Row Motorsports. Though Morgan Shepherd’s top 25 finish was impressive, the underdog performer of the race had to go to Simo and the entire Front Row Motorsports operation. Simo, who already managed to qualify Front Row’s No. 34 Cup car into the field at Sonoma earlier this season, stepped into the No. 24 for regular driver Eric McClure, kept his car in one piece, and scored a lead lap 20th-place finish for the team. Simo’s finish marked the No. 24’s first top 20 since Talladega in April, and only their second of the season in the Nationwide Series. Front Row Motorsports also deserves a pat on the back after they extended a hand to fellow underdog Alex Garcia. Though Garcia failed to qualify for the race, he was only able to make an attempt after FRM loaned him a car (Garcia’s primary was wrecked last weekend at Montreal). Bob Jenkins and the FRM operation — despite a meager budget — are at the track every weekend running to completion and deserve a pat on the back.
“Just a huge relief. It feels like a big relief off my shoulders, I’m sure it is for everybody in this room, standing next to us, because we’ve committed a lot to it. I’ve come a long way, I’ve dragged my family halfway around the world, away from my dad and mom, and everybody who needs me back in Australia, and today it just feels like it’s worthwhile. It feels like I’ve conquered a huge mountain, and it’s just a great day.” – Marcos Ambrose after scoring his first career Nationwide Series win
“Two speeding penalties and wrecking at the end equals a very frustrating day.” – Boris Said after a disappointing 27th-place run
Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to the Irish Hills to tackle the Michigan International Speedway. Coverage of the CARFAX 250 begins Saturday at 3 p.m. on ESPN and 3:30 on MRN.