HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Kyle Busch led seven times for 153 laps to win the Ford 300, his record 13th Nationwide Series victory of the 2010 season and one that clinched the owners’ title for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch knocked off Kevin Harvick by a few car lengths at the start-finish line. Brad Keselowski finished third, scoring his seventh consecutive top-five finish and record 26th of the season.
Can anyone out there not tell that this writer is sick and tired of writing about the same handful of Cup regulars making the minor leagues their own private playgrounds?
While Cup regulars stole the show up front, leading all but 13 of the laps run Saturday afternoon (Nov. 20), this event did come one yellow flag away from seeing the potential for a Nationwide regular victory. Throughout the afternoon, one of the strongest cars the field saw on longer runs was none other than Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who alongside Keselowski opted to save a set of sticker tires during pit cycles in the middle portions of the race.
The opportunity to bolt on the fresh rubber came on lap 174 after a wreck by Chase Mattioli, and saw the No. 6 car charge from outside the top 20 all the way into the top five. Unfortunately for Stenhouse, what was a wreck-filled race ended with 25 straight laps of green-flag racing, leaving his Ford with too much ground to make up on the race leaders. Nonetheless, the result cemented the 2010 Rookie of the Year title for the former ARCA and USAC competitor.
Justin Allgaier finished 11th in his final race with Penske Racing, securing fourth in points and the title of highest-finishing Nationwide Series regular. The Top 30 in owner points for the 2011 season opener at Daytona is also set, with the No. 70 number fielded by ML Motorsports and Jay Robinson Racing earning the final locked-in spot in the field over the No. 81 team of MacDonald Motorsports, which failed to qualify earlier on Saturday.
Stenhouse Jr.‘s fourth-place finish was far more significant than equaling his best career effort on a downforce track, it clinched him the title of Rookie of the Year after what has been a tumultuous 2010 season to put it lightly. After losing the 2008 ARCA championship at Toledo Speedway in a violent tangle with Scott Speed, Stenhouse ran a very limited schedule in 2009 before returning to full-time competition this year. To say 2010 started with a lot of rust is an understatement; the Mississippi native had five DNFs for crashes in the first 12 races before failing to qualify for the season’s second race at Nashville.
From there, however, the driver turned his season around, playing an integral role in returning the team to the Top 30 in owner points, contending for the win in the NNS CoT debut at Daytona and scoring six top-10 finishes in the second half of the season.
To take the rookie of the year crown despite the rough start, despite having no certain home for 2011 and despite having Roush Fenway Racing sign more development talent in Brian Ickler and Trevor Bayne halfway through his rookie season is a tremendous accomplishment for Stenhouse, who’s comeback to win the ROTY award was the largest in terms of points margin in series history.
Speaking of Bayne, it took seven races, but finally the former MWR development prospect finally returned to top-five form in his new home in the Roush Fenway camp. And it wasn’t easy; Bayne was a top-10 fixture before slapping the wall on lap 135 with an apparent cut tire. Undeterred, the youngster took his unsponsored Ford back to the front and scored his first top-five finish since Richmond back in September, outrunning both of his Cup teammates in the RFR stable. Despite the midseason change in teams, Bayne finished seventh in points in his first full-time season on the Nationwide Series circuit.
Jason Leffler may have endured a disappointing 2010 season, but he won the battle and the war in the seven races that he faced off against the No. 38 ride that used to be exclusively his. Leffler surged during the final green-flag run of this event to finish 10th, his third top-10 finish in the last four races en route to finishing ninth in points (Leffler has finished in the top 10 in Nationwide points every year since 2007).
Also noteworthy was that Homestead marked the final time in 2010 that Leffler vacated the Great Clips seat in favor of Kasey Kahne… and the fifth consecutive race that he finished higher than his Cup counterpart driving the No. 10 car. Kahne finished his eight-race stint in the No. 38 car with two top-10 results and a 24.0 finishing average. Leffer in those eight races? Seven top-10 results and a 9.8 finishing average. Score one for the regulars.
And a shout-out to Brendan Gaughan for a top-10 result finish in his final race with RWI.
Aric Almirola led a charge for JR Motorsports that saw both of the team’s entries qualify in the top five (Almirola started fourth, Danica Patrick fifth), but the day went sour in a hurry. Lap 30 saw Almirola make contact with Allgaier exiting turn 2 after the No. 12 Dodge got loose in the corner, creating an accordion of sorts that saw the No. 88, in addition to Carl Edwards and Kahne, spin down the backstretch. Kahne ended up t-boning Almirola’s machine, causing severe damage to the car’s front end.
The team made repairs and kept the No. 88 on the lead lap, but not for long. Lap 41 saw Almirola’s damaged machine get loose on the high side of turn 2, collecting Eric McClure and sending both machines into the outside wall. Finishing 27 laps down in the 32nd position was Almirola’s worst finish in his tenure with JR Motorsports, and the worst for the No. 88 team since Kelly Bires lost an engine five laps into the March race at Las Vegas.
Michael Annett made waves with the announcement that he and his Pilot Travel Centers sponsorship will be moving to Rusty Wallace Incorporated for 2011, but his finale with Germain Racing did anything but. The day started promisingly for the No. 15 team, with Annett moving from the 35th starting position to 13th by lap 30 before developing a handling condition and falling back to 23rd in the next 20 laps. The day went from bad to worse on lap 60, when Annett lost control of his Toyota exiting turn 4. Though he made no contact with the wall, Annett struggled home to a 24th-place result by race’s end.
While RFR placed four cars in the top 10 and saw both development prospects Bayne and Stenhouse enjoy top-five runs, there was one Roushketeer missing from the party in Colin Braun. Braun, who like Stenhouse endured a rollercoaster start to the 2010 season that saw him lose his full-time ride after wrecking his teammate at Texas, methodically worked his way forward from the 26th starting position and cracked the top 15 by lap 50, moving as high as 11th.
Unfortunately, that solid run fell 38 laps short of the finish, with a turn 3 spin on lap 162 that left the No. 16 to limp home to a 29th-place result, the team’s first finish outside the top 25 since Watkins Glen in August. Braun’s future in the RFR camp is also in play for next season, though the former Truck driver was seen around NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series hauler on several occasions throughout race weekend as rumors continued to swirl as to whether Ford’s flagship team would be returning to the Truck ranks next season.
Mattioli‘s Nationwide Series debut was to be a feel-good story, a combination of one of NASCAR’s most hospitable families with a stalwart NNS operation. The feel-good side of the story ended there. Mattioli endured a hard wreck in qualifying that sent him to the back of the field for the start of the race.
And while the ARCA regular ran a clean race that impeded none of his fellow competitors for most of the event, Mattioli endured another hard wreck on lap 174 that utterly destroyed the No. 27 car and left the developing driver with a 33rd-place finish, leaving Baker/Curb’s flagship car with four finishes outside the top 30 in their final six races to close out the 2010 campaign. Those results are not what the this operation needed to secure sponsorship in time for Daytona next year.
K-Automotive’s two team cars made the field for Saturday’s finale, as well as the No. 56 of Mac Hill Motorsports, but none of the three cars had enjoyable afternoons. Kevin Lepage and Dennis Setzer start-and-parked their respective rides within the first six laps of the race, without the funds needed to buy tires.
As for Brian Keselowski, his No. 92 car attempted to run the distance and even took the green flag on lap 65 as the leader thanks to pit strategy. But finishing a race, even when the opportunity presented itself, wasn’t in the cards. Keselowski cut a tire on lap 149 and flattened the right side of his Dodge, leaving his final race of the year over with well short of the checkered flag.
Both teams confirmed to Frontstretch Saturday that 2011 is nothing but a question mark; Mac Hill’s No. 56 NNS team will not be back for next year, while Keselowski is unsure whether an appearance at the season opener at Daytona in February will be possible for his operation. This ever-repeating saga is another example of a story this writer is sick of having to pen.
Underdog Performer of the Year: Tri-Star Motorsports. The team’s Nos. 34 and 35 cars did not enjoy their best days at Homestead, finishing 23rd and 27th with Tony Raines and Jason Keller behind the wheel. But what the two squads have accomplished in 2010 is indeed noteworthy. For Raines, 2010 marked a 17th-place points finish that while a drop from 2010 was still laudable given the number of Cup-backed entries that emerged at the front of the field this year.
And for Keller, there’s little that needs to be said for a driver that has taken an unsponsored ride and a team that formed less than a month before Daytona and led the No. 35 not only to a top-five finish at Talladega, but into the Top 30 in owner points. Whatever the future holds for the organization, the longtime Nationwide veteran deserves a tip of the hat. Everybody at Tri-Star has earned one this year.
The Final Word
- Shame the Nationwide Series is saying goodbye to these old racecars. They seem to race really well. And if memory serves teams without Cup backing could afford to buy them.
- If Saturday’s race was any indication of what to expect for Sunday’s Cup finale, it’s good and bad. Side-by-side racing will be plentiful. Turn 4 will be absolutely treacherous. And tires may well prove to be an issue. Just ask Bayne and Brian Keselowski or Kyle Busch and others on Friday night. Though Kurt Busch may have a thing or two to say about having tire issues in the title race.
- Cup Series regulars won the Nationwide Series driver championship, and drove the lion’s share of races for the team that won the owner’s crown. Cup regulars won 33 of 35 races run this season, or 94.28%. They scored 130 of 175 top-five finishing positions, or 74.28%. And they led 5,845 of 6,491 laps run, or 90.04%. Why the hell does this series even exist?!
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.