For the 36th time in the last 82 Nationwide Series races, a Joe Gibbs Racing entry visited victory lane, with Denny Hamlin holding off teammate Kyle Busch to score his first Nationwide Series victory of 2010 and first since Kansas back in 2008. Hamlin, who won the pole for Friday night’s race as well, combined with Busch to lead 128 of the 147 laps run in a race that seldom saw the No. 18 and No. 20 Toyotas challenged. Justin Allgaier, who later succumbed to multiple flat tires, led 10 laps early but proved to be a flash in the pan contender when stacked against JGR’s Cup roster.
The winning call came on pit road when both Hamlin and Busch opted to stay out under a late-race caution while the rest of the field pitted for tires. A number of additional yellows combined with the rock hard Goodyear eagles that refused to wear proved enough to keep those two at the front of the field to the checkers.
While there was a significant amount of attrition throughout the 200-mile race, the Sprint Cup regulars in the event proved largely immune, scoring nine of the top-10 finishing positions when the checkered flag fell (only Jason Leffler, who finished a strong fifth, broke their stranglehold on the front of the field). Friday marked the first time in 2010 that Cup regulars scored 90% of the top-10 finishing positions in a Nationwide Series event.
Points leader Brad Keselowski, who rebounded to finish seventh after an early-race incident with Clint Bowyer that saw him scrub the turn 4 wall and drop out of the top 10 quickly, maintained a lead of 55 points over second-place Kyle Busch (the lead between Keselowski and the next driver who has declared intent to run a full Nationwide schedule, Carl Edwards, is 199 points). Allgaier, the highest-ranked Nationwide Series regular, fell to over 200 points out of the lead with his 17th-place finish.
Not only was Leffler the only Nationwide regular to crack the top 10, he delivered a convincing performance in doing so. Being one of the eight races in 2010 that Leffler found himself driving for the No. 10 team instead of his usual No. 38 squad, he proved to have one of the fastest cars in the field even when mired in traffic for the middle portions of the event. Though Leffler was unable to keep up with the leaders late in the going, track position gained through staying out on old tires left him able to keep the field at bay and brought home his first top five of the season. With four tires, given his strength picking through traffic in the second third of the race, a different Toyota operation may well have visited victory lane on Friday.
Speaking of Toyota, the youth behind that make’s collective wheels delivered a strong account of themselves on the Nationwide circuit’s most treacherous track. Michael Annett finished 11th, Steve Wallace shook off a terrible run of recent wrecks to finish 12th and Trevor Bayne ran as high as sixth and proved able to pass at the front with the leaders before pit strategy ended up relegating his No. 99 to 16th in the final running order. All three of these drivers stayed out of trouble and brought their cars home in one piece, with solid results to boot.
Coleman Pressley scored his second consecutive top-20 finish driving the No. 23 for R3 Motorsports, a run that again saw a driver whose experience in Nationwide competition had been limited to start-and-parking for JTG/Daugherty Racing in 2009 keep his nose clean for the race’s duration. Pressley’s spotter did an admirable job on Friday night reminding his young driver to race the track, not the pack, and it showed; Pressley was astutely able to keep himself out of treacherous situations all night long. This kid’s got talent.
And then there’s Mike Wallace, whose recent stretch of bad luck with the No. 01 team seemed destined to continue, as his debut race with new sponsor One Hour Heating and Air began with a wreck in practice, and the use of a backup car that qualified 40th. But after that trial, the bad luck did end. Capitalizing on attrition and improving over the course of 200 miles, Wallace came home 13th, his best finish since Nashville. Frontstretch spoke to Wallace at Darlington; tune in later this week to read an in-depth interview with one of the Series’ wiliest veterans.
Brian Scott scored a 25th-place finish, hardly remarkable for a Nationwide Series rookie at Darlington. But it was about as costly a top-25 run as a driver can possibly score. Scott, who timed in 13th with his first qualifying lap, went for two and paid the price, wrecking his primary car. Predictably, with next to no time available to prepare the backup between NNS qualifying and race time, Scott struggled throughout the event, eventually pancaking the side of his backup No. 11 machine late in the race. The fab shop at Braun Racing is going to earn every bit of their paychecks this weekend… for a top 25.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. notepads featuring covers with the youngster in front of the Citi Financial Ford may well be collectors’ items soon, as his days in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car appear numbered. In yet another unsponsored race, Stenhouse again found himself making hard contact with the Lady in Black’s retaining walls, destroying his race car and relegating the team to a 37th-place finish that dropped them even further down the standings among drivers battling for a locked-in spot in the Top 30. The result derailed any sense of momentum the team had after a top-20 finish at Richmond and marked Stenhouse’s fourth DNF for crashes in the first 10 races of the season. Given how short a leash Colin Braun found himself on just a few weeks back, it’s not a bad bet that David Ragan will be racing the No. 6 Ford at Dover.
James Buescher is giving the Braun/Stenhouse duo at RFR a run for their money when it comes to creating wreckage, and this weekend he had no one to blame but himself. Running the lowest that any car on the track even attempted to on Friday night, Buescher on lap 34 spun himself into oncoming traffic in turn 4, collecting Scott Lagasse Jr., Steve Arpin, Chad McCumbee and Michael McDowell (Lagasse caught the worst of it, while the other drivers were able to continue with crash damage). By the numbers, Buescher finished 31st after being involved in his fifth wreck in the last eight races, and took four fellow Nationwide regulars (and Joe Nemechek) for the ride with him. Results like this one make James Finch’s inability to find full-time sponsorship even more plausible.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Stanton Barrett. It doesn’t matter who the driver is, finishing 14th in Nationwide Series competition driving a Rick Ware Racing entry is impressive. And Barrett didn’t do it by just dodging wrecks; he ran at the front of the field and managed to stay up there. Staying out under an early caution handed him the lead; and although Hamlin made very quick work of Barrett’s No. 41 car for the top spot on lap 85, after two or three laps the longtime stuntman’s entry came to life and proved capable of racing even those at the front of the field. The reward? Barrett’s first top-15 finish in Nationwide competition since Las Vegas in March of 2008, and a career best result at Darlington – all in a Rick Ware Racing entry.
The Final Word
- Team orders are alive and well, even in the Nationwide ranks. Mark Green, carrying the colors of the race’s title sponsor Royal Purple and running the distance for a rare occasion in Jay Robinson Racing’s second entry, was running 23rd during one of the race’s late cautions, when the command came down over the radio; drop to the back, finish at or around the last car on the lead lap, and do not pass the No. 28 car under any circumstances and jeopardize three points in the owner standings. Makes perfect business sense, but really? That’s racing?
- Speaking of racing, a walk through the Nationwide Series garage on Friday revealed just how many teams out there are in barebones survival mode. For a number of teams, including the No. 26 of Brian Keselowski and K-Automotive, that meant, just as with Green, holding back at the conclusion of the race at Darlington rather than pushing forward for a shot at a top 20. Again, good business practice, but having a ton of cars in the field doesn’t mean anything if half of them are simply riding around trying to get to the next week. And before jumping down my throat for bashing the little guy, consider this simply an indictment of how bad things really are in the Nationwide Series right now… as in, the worst in the series’ history.
- I don’t have a source on the whole Stenhouse being out of a ride after this latest wreck at Darlington theory, but if anyone’s a betting person, find someone that’d take that bet.
- On the topic of bets, if someone had offered even 10,000 to 1 odds that Tony Raines would be in the top 10 in Nationwide Series points at any time this season, chances are they’d have had a hard time finding a taker. But low and behold, Raines and his No. 34 team moved into 10th in the standings following an 18th place result, his best finish at Darlington since 2005. For all the struggles currently gripping this garage, it’s refreshing to see a team such as Tri-Star Motorsports proving able to make it happen. We all need to see that.