This one wasn’t even close.
The same Marcos Ambrose whose unforced error cost him and the No. 47 team a Cup victory at Sonoma in NASCAR’s last visit to a road course put a whooping on the Nationwide Series field Saturday, leading all but 22 laps and proving to be untouchable at the front en route to his third consecutive NNS win in the Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
The story of the day was highlighted by two disasters for Roush Fenway Racing. Carl Edwards, trying desperately to keep Keselowski in sight as the two battle for the NNS title, suffered engine troubles early on Saturday and was only able to complete 25 of the 82 laps run. His 33rd-place finish dropped the 2007 NNS champion to over 300 points behind Keselowski.
The second incident to hit RFR was an ugly 10-car wreck on lap 24, triggered when Jason Leffler clipped the rear end of Colin Braun after getting off-track exiting turn 1. The resulting melee also destroyed the No. 6 of Billy Johnson, leaving the RFR camp with six destroyed racecars over the last two weekends. The wreck further impacted the points standings, with top-10 drivers Leffler and Justin Allgaier having their respective rides destroyed in the crash.
On a day that saw the majority of Nationwide Series regulars struggle, road-course ringers almost universally earned their paychecks on Saturday afternoon. Ron Fellows led the charge, finishing sixth in what was his fourth top-10 finish in five starts for JR Motorsports dating back to Montreal in 2008. His teammate JR Fitzpatrick ran in the top 10 for much of Saturday afternoon before finishing 11th, the fourth consecutive top-16 result for the No. 7 team. It’s a perfect push for a program that needs all the momentum it can get; the Michigan weekend once again finds Danica Patrick behind the wheel.
Nelson Piquet Jr., who has impressed in both the ARCA and Truck ranks throughout 2010, did more of the same in his Nationwide Series debut. His seventh-place result was the first top 10 for Baker Curb Racing’s No. 27 team since, ironically, the last road-course race for the Nationwide Series (Owen Kelly finished fifth at Road America for them). Finally, Jacques Villeneuve fought brake issues all afternoon to score a ninth-place result for the No. 32 team, carrying the flag for Braun Racing and rebounding after mechanical failures cost the same program a shot at the win at Road America earlier this season.
While the ringers’ success wasn’t too surprising, it was surprising to see which of the Nationwide Series regulars finished highest in the running order… because while Steve Wallace has had solid results on the road courses, he’s not exactly synonymous with road racing. Still, Wallace was a consistent top-15 car all afternoon, ran a clean race, and by finishing ninth he was the highest finishing non-Cup regular when the checkered flag flew. Wallace has now scored ten top-15 finishes in a row.
Victor Gonzalez Jr. has become the road-course regular for the No. 05 team after delivering a top-15 finish at Montreal last summer, and was giving the 31-W car another solid ride at the Glen before a blown tire caused heavy damage to his machine. Gonzalez was relegated to a 37th-place finish after completing only 20 laps, the worst run of his Nationwide Series career.
When the preliminary entry list for Saturday’s race came out early in the week, only 40 cars were listed. The field got to 43, thanks to spontaneous decisions by Specialty Racing to make their first start since Loudon, Means Racing to attempt a road course after running only plate races and a handful in the bluegrass region all season, and MacDonald Motorsports to start a second car for the first time since 2007. None of those three entries lasted more than nine laps on Saturday afternoon. Anyone out there still think NASCAR doesn’t encourage start-and-park?
As mentioned earlier, the race was marred by a red flag following a 10-car wreck on lap 24. Leffler, off track exiting turn 1, clipped Braun trying to get back in line, and triggered a chain reaction that ended with Tony Raines‘s car stacked on top of Johnson‘s, with Allgaier, Boris Said Trevor Bayne and Brendan Gaughan also sustaining heavy damage. None of the drivers involved finished better than 22nd.
- Allgaier’s wreck led to a 34th-place result, his worst finish since a 35th place in the last NNS road race. Allgaier now sits nearly 150 points behind Busch for third in the standings, though he remains the highest-ranked NNS regular.
- Trevor Bayne‘s 29th-place result snapped a streak of three consecutive top-five finishes and was his worst since a late-race wreck at Chicagoland.
- Gaughan finished 30th, his fifth finish outside the top 10 in the last six races.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Tony Ave. While Jason Keller has shouldered the lion’s share of the burden keeping Tri-Star Motorsports’ No. 35 car inside the Top 30 in owner points, Ave has made a sizable contribution to the effort. After delivering a top-10 qualifying effort and top 20-finish for the team at Road America, Ave dodged trouble all afternoon to finish 15th on Saturday, his best run in major-league stock car racing since a third-place result in an ARCA race at Talladega back in 2003. All the more impressive, Ave scored his Nationwide result immediately after failing to qualify for the Cup race in TriStar’s first series attempt since 1997. A job well done for this road ringer on a weekend where he could have let emotions get the best of him….
The Final Word
- Yes, Leffler took responsibility for causing the Watkins Glen edition of the Big One, but it was a far from convincing admission. Preaching give and take and saying that “you’ve got to let people back in” when they get off-track was just embarrassing to listen to, as Leffler all but blamed Braun for causing the wreck after it was his own Toyota that clipped Braun in the back. It doesn’t matter what point of the race it is, track position is priceless on a road course, and it’s not the job of Braun or anyone else to let any driver that gets off track come back in line. It is kind of surprising, though, that Leffler’s washed out of Cup twice now… he’s got the on-track entitlement bit down pat.
- Brian Keselowski was running at the finish for the first time since Darlington in May. Kind of surprising to see it happen at a road course of all places, but a welcome sight nonetheless.
- With all of the talent that they’ve put in their No. 7 and No. 88 cars this season, how in the world is JRM ever going to decide on who to give a full-time ride next season? And where the hell has Fitzpatrick been? How a talent that promising has all but fallen through the cracks never ceases to amaze.
- Listening to ESPN’s broadcast booth pondering if Busch could win the title without running all the races was amusing. Then again, considering how boring and non-existent the title chase in this series is… again… it’s hard to blame them for wandering into fantasy.