For all the tire strategy that made Saturday night’s Great Clips 300 both interesting and confusing (at one point Kevin Harvick had the entire field lapped after taking new tires under yellow while the rest of the leaders stayed out), it didn’t pave the way to victory lane. After Brad Keselowski elected to stay out under a lap 167 yellow while the rest of the leaders pit for four tires, his No. 22 Dodge quickly dropped like a rock on the ensuing restart. Jamie McMurray, who had quietly run up front, took advantage and secured the point, never to give it up again. Though Kyle Busch trimmed McMurray’s one-second lead to barely four tenths over the final 10 laps of the event, Rowdy’s quest to score Nationwide win number 11 of the 2010 season was put on hold. For McMurray, it was his first Nationwide Series win since 2004.
Just as the battle up front would indicate, Cup drivers dominated this 300-miler, leading all 195 laps and scoring eight of the top-10 finishing positions. Only Jason Leffler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. secured top-10 finishes (seventh and 10th) for the Nationwide Series regulars.
Carl Edwards finished third and made up 32 points on Keselowski (who finished 12th after his late-race strategy failure), closing the gap to 332 for the Nationwide Series points lead. Justin Allgaier remained fourth and the highest-ranked Nationwide Series regular after finishing 13th.
On a night that saw Reed Sorenson a staple in the top 10 after an afternoon that saw the rumor mill all but reporting that Sorenson was going to run for Braun Racing full-time in 2011 and Kasey Kahne win the pole, it was yet again Leffler that wound up carrying the flag for the Braun camp by race’s end. Between a miserable, mishandling evening for Brian Scott, a late-race tire rub that forced Kahne to pit under green and a hard wreck for Sorenson on lap 166, Leffler remained the only Braun car with a shot at a solid finish, and he delivered. The seventh-place result was the sixth consecutive top-10 finish for Leffler in the No. 10 car. Great Clips went for a rebranding effort by putting Kahne back in the No. 38 car this year… maybe they should just slap some No. 10 decals on their machine and let Leffler get after it.
Stenhouse Jr. was the only non-Cup driver running for Roush Fenway Racing on Saturday night, and he joined a parade of Fords that saw the team’s entire four-car stable score top-10 finishes. Finishing 10th, Stenhouse scored his best finish since a ninth-place run at Gateway in July, rookie of the race honors and a stellar outing for sponsor Blackwell Angus Beef that made the No. 6 team two-for-two sporting the company’s colors (they also finished third at Daytona in July). The only blip on the night was Stenhouse’s misjudged crossover move exiting turn 2 that sent Sorenson hard into the backstretch wall.
Even after winning the race with Cup regular McMurray, No. 88 team crew chief Tony Eury Jr. made a point to reaffirm Dale Jr.’s and JR Motorsports’ desire to keep young talent in their cars for 2011. One such prospect, Josh Wise, made another solid impression in the team’s No. 7 car at Atlanta. Wise, who unofficially appears to be the frontrunner to drive alongside Danica Patrick next season, not only finished a clean 11th on Saturday, he proved communicative and able to learn as a race progressed. In the first half of the event, Wise dropped quickly from his sixth place qualifying position and fell back as far as 17th.
His spotter was quick to point out to Wise that he was leaving too much room for drivers to get a nose under him on the low side on corner entry, telling Wise to run lower along the yellow line. Wise complied, did so the rest of the evening, and proved nearly impossible to pass for the drivers he was racing in the top 15. After all the communication and team dynamic problems JRM cited as a reason for Kelly Bires‘s early release, performances like Saturday’s by Wise may well land him this high-profile gig as Danica’s Top-30 guarantee.
Let’s just say that Saturday night was one that the Wallace family would probably soon like to forget. On a night that saw Missourians take first and third, Kenny Wallace‘s unremarkable 24th-place finish on Saturday night was the best that any of the state’s most famous racing family could muster. Tension was already running high as early as lap 5, where younger Steve voiced his displeasure with uncle Mike’s driving on the track over the radio.
Unfortunately, Mike Wallace would not be on the track long enough to have an impact, positive or negative, on the race. The No. 01 team succumbed to what appeared to be an engine issue after finishing 100 laps; the team parked after a green-flag stop following reports by numerous cars on-track that the No. 01 was dropping oil. Steve Wallace‘s motor lasted a bit longer, but still fell well short of the finish. The No. 66 team bowed out after completing 139 laps, the smoky demise of what Steve referred to as “the worst f***ing motor of my career.”
Several smaller operations seemed to have their biggest troubles not on keeping pace, but on pit road. Brian Keselowski was called into the pits on lap 11 for his team not having a crew chief in their pit box. Problem is, the No. 26 team wasn’t start-and-parking this weekend. It was eventually reported that the team was having radio communication issues; whatever the reason, Keselowski’s unscheduled green-flag pit stop put the team in a hole they wouldn’t climb out of, finishing 11 laps down in the 31st position.
Mark Green‘s night was made even worse with pit road communication issues. Fighting a terribly ill-handling machine, Green was also facing the challenge of trying to pit in sync with teammate Kenny Wallace, apparently owing to the shortage of personnel in the Jay Robinson Racing camp. Further, after a lap 61 caution, Green’s team miscommunicated what adjustments to make to their car on the lap before going back to green; a crew man jacked up the machine to prepare for a spring change that the team would not be able to make. Frustrated, Green left pit road as the field was entering turn 3, leaving him to restart late and way out of the pack. The 32nd place finish for the No. 70 team dropped them to 30th in owner points, 62 ahead of the MacDonald Motorsports team… and having to race their way into the field again.
It may not have resulted in the ugly carnage that ensued when Edwards took out Keselowski at Gateway, but Trevor Bayne was the victim of what was an avoidable incident on lap 145. Exiting turn 2, Bayne came up in front of a surging Ryan Newman. The move was cutting it close, but far from a sure wreck. Nonetheless, Newman floored the gas exiting turn 2 and flat ran over Bayne, sending him spinning down the backstretch. Though Bayne would avoid any serious damage (he finished a disappointing 24th), this was not a clear cut case of someone being blatantly run over for no reason… it was a Cup regular doing it to a Nationwide Series regular. That’s the very definition of ugly.
Underdog Performance of the Race: Jason Keller. 18th place is certainly not the best showing that Keller, or Tri-Star Motorsports for that matter, has mustered in 2010. But after last weekend’s event at Montreal had dropped the No. 35 team to the dreaded 30th position in owner points, it was just what the team needed. The top-20 result allowed the No. 35 bunch to jump from 30th to 27th in the owner points, not only putting three cars between them and being forced to race into the field every weekend, but also expanding their points cushion to 94 over that same spot. For a team that’s somehow found a way both to stay on track unsponsored and to fight their way into the Top 30, there’s no performance that could have been more clutch.
The Final Word
- NASCAR’s crowd estimate came in at 71,500 for Saturday night’s race. Yes, the crowd was healthy by Nationwide Series standards this year, and made the one seen this spring at Atlanta’s sister track in Charlotte look paltry. That said, I’m still convinced it was an exaggeration, though not in the neighborhood of say, Pocono’s 80,000 estimate. The traffic problem, on the other hand, was not. Leaving two hours after the conclusion of the Nationwide Series race only to have a 45-minute drive take nearly three hours does not bode well for a track that’s been known for its traffic woes in the past. How there were no police on Bruton Smith Blvd. leading out to I-75 was mind-boggling. I shudder to think what Sunday’s Cup race exit will be like.
- Working the back of the Nationwide Series garage this afternoon, there were non start-and-park teams that were trying to do the weekend on two sets of tires. For another, it was their fifth race with a non-refreshed motor. 20% purse cuts definitely sound like they’ll do that situation wonders.
- These two didn’t get mentions because they had Cup drivers behind the wheel, but a shout out to the crew guys at Key Motorsports for a top 15 car, and Team 42 Racing, which followed up a tremendous run with Parker Kligerman at Bristol with another top-20 effort in Atlanta. That’s the first time in team history they’ve scored back-to-back top 20s.
- The good news about driver intros? I was really surprised to hear Keller get the solid ovation that he did. The bad? The two Nationwide Series drivers that the fans reacted most vocally to were… Busch and Brad Keselowski. I for one get enough of both of them on Sunday.
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