The No. 3 returned to Daytona…and to it’s familiar home in victory lane…on Friday night. In what was a debut race for the Nationwide Series’ Car of Tomorrow, Cup regulars and teams were again up front early and often. Of the 102 laps led, 91 were led by Cup drivers, while all 102 were led by teams with Cup affiliations.
In the end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in an anti-climatic finish. After an early segment of racing that saw the new cars slipping and sliding all over the high banks of Daytona, the cars at the front broke away into a single-file line that saw little movement on a final restart, with the No. 3 car all but unchallenged for the checkered flag. Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., points leader Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 5.
The car dubbed “the potential great equalizer” by the broadcast booth proved to be anything but, with Jason Leffler in 14th scoring the first finish for an independent Nationwide Series operation (Ryan Newman’s No. 1 team is enjoying extensive Hendrick support as previously reported by Frontstretch, while Germain Racing themselves now also employ a full-time Cup team). Further back, a number of teams that were supposed to enjoy the increased parity of the new machine struggled all night, with Eric McClure finishing five laps off the pace, and even plate-ace Mike Wallace failing to stay on the lead lap.
Carl Edwards finished 11th Friday night, losing an additional 30 points to Keselowski in the title chase, who now holds a commanding 277 point lead heading into Chicago. Justin Allgaier finished 17th after a late pit stop for tires didn’t pan out, and remained the lead Nationwide Series regular, 488 points out in third.
*Ricky Stenhouse Jr.* has been fighting a losing battle all season to get his No. 6 team into the top 30…and did so with a vengeance on Friday night. Manhandling the slick Daytona asphalt, Stenhouse ran with the best NASCAR has to offer late in the running, and when all was said and done came home third with new sponsor Blackwell Angus Beef on board. The result was a career-best finish for Stenhouse not only in Nationwide Series competition, but in all plate-racing (he never finished inside the top 20 on plate tracks during his 2008 ARCA campaign). Stenhouse was the highest-finishing Nationwide Series regular on Friday night, and will be locked into the field for the first time in 2010 this coming Friday night.
Roush Fenway Racing teammate *Brian Ickler* delivered a ninth place result for the No. 16 team, the first time the two Nationwide Series operations had scored top 10s in the same race in 2010.
*Steve Arpin* broke a nasty cold streak that had seen him fail to score a top 10 in both Nationwide Series and ARCA competition since winning an ARCA event at Texas back in April with a 10th place finish, his best career Nationwide Series result. For Arpin, the finish couldn’t come soon enough; the ARCA Racing Series returns to action at Iowa this coming weekend, and his No. 55 team in that series has slipped from the points lead to eighth over the last few events. Plus, scoring a best-career finish the first time the Nationwide Series COT hits the track can’t help but bode well for a driver seeking promotion to those same ranks for 2011.
*Michael Annett’s* plate-racing prowess was well-documented in the ARCA Racing Series (winning at both Daytona and Talladega), and it showed during Friday’s event. Recovering from a mid-race spin that saw the former hockey player doing everything in his power to keep his No. 15 off the turn 4 walls, Annett powered back to 12th by race’s end.
*Trevor Bayne* had a career-best streak of finishes snapped despite having a car that proved capable of running in the top 5 over the middle portions of the race. Coming off consecutive top 10 finishes for the first time in his brief tenure as a Nationwide Series driver, Bayne garnered some well-earned praise and TV time for his drive to the front during his de facto Daytona debut; Bayne was taken out less than 10 laps into the February season-opener at the track. Unfortunately, the same luck that has stripped he and the No. 99 team of a number of solid results this season bit yet again, new car notwithstanding; Bayne faded to 27th by race’s end, and again dropped from the top 10 in points.
As previously mentioned, *Eric McClure* and his No. 24 struggled all night with their new car, finishing five laps down in 36th in their first race since falling out of the top 30…and a locked-in spot in the field. The result was a far cry from the 17th place result the Rensi camp posted in the season’s debut at Daytona…and likely a microcosm of what trying to figure out these new cars on a shoestring budget is going to be like for Nationwide Series operations across the garage.
*Baker Curb Racing* had perhaps the roughest day of any team that trekked down to Daytona, losing three cars in a span of a few days. *Jennifer Jo Cobb*, who brought sponsor dollars to the team’s No. 27 team, wrecked her primary car in practice, was among the slowest in the field in the backup, then wrecked the backup only five laps into the race because, as she put it, “it was the first time all weekend someone had been behind her.” Her spin and crash took out the No. 43 of *Johnny Chapman*, her teammate and the start-and-park car that the team was trying to do anything with but wreck. Cobb noted that her four-race deal with the team may be null after an ugly weekend at Daytona; for their sake, here’s hoping it is.
The ugliest casualties of the weekend were not seen on the race track. For the first time since Daytona in February of 2008, the No. 61 team of *Specialty Racing* was not at the track for a Nationwide Series race. *K-Automotive Motorsports* showed up with only one car for the first time in well over 50 races, and that car was not even a K-Automotive entry; Parker Kligerman drove a second Penske entry with Brian Keselowski’s No. 26 number on the side. Frankly, it was surprising that these two were the only Nationwide Series teams out there unable to race on Friday night due to the lack of a COT, but it’s still pretty counter-constructive that a car that has been touted as a means to bring new ownership into the struggling Nationwide Series is turning away owners already there.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Greg Sacks* *Jason Keller’s* 20th place result, coming barely a month after he spent the NNS COT test sharing a car with teammate Tony Raines, was impressive. But a shout-out needs to go to Greg Sacks, who in bringing sponsorship to JR Motorsports bought himself a one-race swan song at the track that 25 years ago saw him steal the upset in the Firecracker 400. Sacks qualified in the top 10, ran on the lead lap, and actually took the green flag for the final restart in the top 10 before the final few laps transpired to leave the No. 88 21st in the final running order. Much like James Hylton a few years back, to see Sacks back at the front, even if he didn’t finish there, at Daytona was a remarkable sight for a new-gen race fan such as myself, and one I’m thrilled I got to see. A welcome throwback on a night full of new changes.
*The Final Word*
* For all the hype about the appearances of the new COT, the only car on the track that actually looked like a stock car on the TV broadcast was Dodge’s Challenger, which admittedly was a badass entry. The highly-acclaimed Mustang of Ford, however, was barely discernible, and the Impala and Camry, well, they’re Impalas and Camrys.
* Cup regulars dominated, the crowd wasn’t that big, and the racing really wasn’t all that discernible from Daytona with the old race cars. Tell me again why it was so essential in this climate to get the new car rolled out now?
* Knowing that a number of race teams out there couldn’t even get cars to run this event, seeing squads out there start-and-parking brand new COTs pissed me off. Call it free enterprise or whatever you want, it pissed me off. What a waste of purse money and of someone’s effort to build race cars for these “race teams.”
* For that matter, how sad is it to see Mac Hill Motorsports, a longtime partial-effort squad that stole a top 15 here and there with an owner that had a well-earned rep for telling it like it was, now running full-time start-and-park? If this is the future of the Nationwide Series and its stalwart teams, count me out.
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