Apparently, probation does make a difference.
As the laps wound down Saturday night (July 24) in the Kroger 200 at O’Reilly Raceway Park, Carl Edwards was within striking distance of Kyle Busch, easily in position to pull a bump and run for the lead and the victory. This weekend, however, despite racing with another driver that he’s had history with, Edwards relented and settled for second as Busch capitalized on a dominating performance to score his eighth Nationwide Series win of 2010. Aric Almirola, polesitter Trevor Bayne and Reed Sorenson rounded out the top five.
Both drivers were celebratory following the event, including an embrace between the two in victory lane. For Busch, his post-race interview provided him an opportunity to take a shot at Truck Series rival Ron Hornaday, who contended for the lead at numerous points throughout the evening before a late wreck relegated him to 28th.
Said Busch, “I know they call Ron Hornaday the king of restarts, but I smoked him tonight.” As for Edwards, he expressed his pleasure that Saturday’s race ended clean, leaving him able to race it out with a driver that he respected. Funny how Bristol 2008 is forgotten, but not Talladega 2009.
Brad Keselowski faded a bit during the final run to finish eighth, losing 23 points to Edwards in the Nationwide Series title chase. Keselowski’s lead stands at 205 markers heading into next weekend’s race at Iowa, a race that he won last season. Justin Allgaier finished seventh and remains the highest-ranked Nationwide Series regular, third in the points and 498 markers back.
Almirola was adamant in expressing his gratitude to Dale Jr. for the opportunity to drive his No. 88 car, and the Truck Series regular delivered in his debut for JR Motorsports. Sporting the team’s new GT Vodka sponsorship, Almirola rebounded from an ugly wreck in Friday night’s truck race to post a third-place result, a career best in the series for the Drive for Diversity graduate (excluding the “win” he scored at Milwaukee in 2007 after being benched mid-race in favor of Denny Hamlin while running in the top five) and equaling the No. 88 team’s best result on an oval this season.
Despite the plethora of drivers that have taken seats for JRM over the course of the past four months, Almirola in recent weeks has emerged as the odds on favorite to secure the No. 88 ride for 2011. Saturday night did nothing to tarnish that possibility.
Bayne‘s fourth-place finish was not the best of his career, but Saturday night at ORP may well go down as his coming out party. Winning his second consecutive pole, including his second straight at ORP, Bayne led a career high 55 laps and seldom left the top five over the course of the night. More importantly, Bayne scored invaluable experience battling with Busch for the race lead, in an exchange that was no quarter given, no holds barred action with one of the sport’s best drivers.
Bayne kept the No. 18 pinned for a number of laps, eventually forcing Busch to muscle his way up front instead of making a clean pass. Now armed with back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his young career, Bayne is riding a significant wave of momentum heading into Iowa.
Shelby Howard, in what was essentially a hometown race for both driver and the No. 70 team, finished 14th after having one of the team’s primary cars destroyed in last week’s Brad/Carl melee. Not too shabby for a part-time operation.
The last time Johnny Sauter ran at ORP in the No. 27 (then Brewco Motorsports), he won the pole and led 121 laps before having to settle for second to a rookie, Busch. Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice for the partnership this time, as Sauter was a non-factor driving the team’s lead entry. Though scoring a better result than teammate Kevin Swindell in the No. 43, a 25th-place finish as the last car on the lead lap was a far cry from what the team was hoping for and expecting.
Derrick Griffin‘s Nationwide Series debut didn’t last long, with the driver of the No. 10 well off the pace from the drop of the green flag. Lapped early, Griffin struggled with a loose-handling car all evening until a spin on lap 76 into the interior wall ended the night for another Indiana native in the field.
Kenny Wallace and Matt Dibenedetto had their evenings cut short thanks to mechanical woes, with Wallace bowing out after only 91 laps with electrical issues while Dibenedetto, already suffering from lap 1 crash damage, had his motor expire over 60 laps short of the finish. The two finished 35th and 31st, respectively.
Jason Leffler‘s troubles started before he even took the first corner. An accordion effect incident at the race’s first drop of the green flag stacked up both sides of the lineup, and left Leffler with massive front-end damage that drove the hood of the No. 38 car so far up, Leffler’s vision from the cockpit was notably impeded (and that’s not a short person joke). Leffler was only able to struggle for a few laps under green before being forced behind the wall early.
The team eventually completed repairs and was able to run 139 circuits on track, finishing 30th. Struggling through another race with a damaged racecar was yet another unwelcome result for Leffler, who has already scored five DNFs in 2010, the most for the Nationwide Series veteran since the 2006 season. The No. 38 team now sits 10th in points, but sits dangerously close to losing that spot to Sorenson and Joey Logano… two drivers not contesting the full schedule.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Robert Richardson. Heading into Saturday night, the best finishes of Richardson’s Nationwide Series career had come in restrictor-plate races courtesy of attrition (19th and 16th at Talladega in 2008 and 2009). That all changed after 201 laps at ORP, with Richardson posting the first top-15 finish of his career in 60 NNS starts.
Driving for his father’s team, the run was notable for a number of reasons. One, it equaled the best of the year for the No. 23 bunch, the same earned by Sauter at Phoenix and Coleman Pressley at Darlington. Two, it was a turnaround of sorts for an organization whose results had sputtered so far this summer, the first time in 10 races that the No. 23 finished on the lead lap. Saturday night was certainly kind for the Richardson family.
The Final Word
- Is there any track at any level of NASCAR that puts on better racing than O’Reilly Raceway Park? I’d put the side-by-side action that’s always seen here against any other race run over the course of the season.
- It may not be getting much, if any attention, but there’s quite the race for a locked-in spot in the Nationwide Series field brewing. With sponsorship woes relegating the No. 43 team to a start-and-park ride for a number of recent races, the No. 70 (being run as a partnership between ML Motorsports and Jay Robinson Racing) is now only nine points from locking itself in. Also knocking on the door are Wayne Day’s No. 05 team and the Rensi No. 24 driven by Eric McClure, who sit only 24 and 26 points out. The battle between the No. 43 and No. 70 will certainly be one to watch, as the team able to secure sponsorship and run full races over the next few weeks will likely take the locked-in spot. The No. 70 may well hold the advantage; ML’s races with the number are fully sponsored with Howard, while Mark Green has run the distance more often than not in recent events for JRR.
- The one sour note for Almirola’s stellar debut for JRM was the confiscation of a shock from the No. 88 team following Saturday night’s race. Any penalties will likely come down Tuesday unless populist rage and desperation pandering to emotions leads NASCAR to do an about-face Wednesday morning.
- Only 43 cars showed up to take time for this short-track event and seven of those were start-and-parks. That’s the lowest car count for this event since 2002. And this was an “old car” event; you know, the racecars that everyone actually has.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.