The year of the Nationwide Series regular, the year that a Nationwide regular will win the championship for the first time since 2005, got started at Daytona on Saturday afternoon. It ended with Tony Stewart in Victory Lane for the fourth consecutive year, and Cup regulars taking half of the top-10 finishing positions. The more things change…
Contradictory to the expectations of most Nationwide Series regulars in the garage earlier this weekend, the two-car tandem drafting that has defined Cup racing at Daytona during Speedweeks again told the tale. JGR teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch were staples at the front, as were regulars Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip for much of the event. The only NNS regular able to maintain the two-car pair up front for the majority was Trevor Bayne, moonlighting this weekend in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Cup car.
The lack of seat time proved to be a detriment for Nationwide regulars, as both maintaining the pairs and pulling off the on-track swaps needed to cool motors down confounded a number of drivers. Jason Leffler and Reed Sorenson lost valuable time during the final charge to the checkers when the time for them to swap came, while Danica Patrick dropped like a rock after leading a lap under green because of failing to ride the brakes to allow her drafting partner to pass.
It was a disastrous start to the season for a number of full-time drivers expected to challenge for the 2011 championship. Elliott Sadler was taken out in an early wreck after Michael Annett was dumped by Todd Bodine in an early-race incident, while Aric Almirola battled carburetor issues for the second half of the event. Justin Allgaier also had a rough day, fighting vibrations in his car and making apparent contact with the wall. He struggled home 27th in his debut with Turner Motorsports.
Landon Cassill was the highest finishing Nationwide Series regular, with Reed Sorenson leaving as the point leader among drivers with full-time rides challenging for the title.
*Landon Cassill* certainly had an eventful season opener in Daytona. First, he was sent spinning on lap 15 after contact between Justin Allgaier and Sam Hornish, Jr. on the frontstretch triggered a multi-car incident that sent the No. 1 spinning across the infield grass. Cassill managed to recover with minimal front end damage, but ended up causing considerable carnage of his own on lap 104. Trying to hook up with Brad Keselowski, who he had done extensive drafting with in the middle of the race, Cassill came down on the nose of the No. 22 Dodge in the tri-oval, sending Brad spinning into traffic where he was T-Boned by Josh Wise. Nonetheless, when the pay window opened, it was the former Hendrick Motorsports development driver that latched on with Tony Stewart and stormed to the front. When all was said and done, Cassill scored a career-best Nationwide Series finish of third, was the highest finishing regular in the field, and took the overall point lead in a part-time ride.
*Jason Leffler* expressed frustration with Turner Motorsports teammate *Reed Sorenson* over the radio as Saturday’s race unfolded, with Leffler exasperatedly telling his spotter to get Sorenson to ride his brakes and allow the two to pair up and move forward. Come race’s end, the duo finally got things straight, had a productive final conversation on the radio before the race’s final restart and did just that. Though their charge to the lead came up short, forced to check up on the backstretch racing the pair of Cassill and Stewart on the final lap, the two ended up carrying the banner for Turner as big names Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne struggled. The two finished fifth and sixth, respectively, solid starts to what each hope will be a season of title contention.
What a difference a year makes for *Roush Fenway Racing*. In this event one year ago, with development drivers *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* and Colin Braun behind the wheel, RFR’s Nos. 6 and 16 teams left with an average finish of 35.0 and two wrecked race cars. This time around, both of Roush’s young guns shone brightly; Stenhouse rebounded from early crash damage on lap 24 to score an eighth-place finish, his third consecutive top 10 dating back to Phoenix last November. *Trevor Bayne* also had a tremendous opening to his season, putting his seat time in Daytona 500 practice and qualifying to work as he masterfully drafted with a number of Cup stars before settling for a 10th-place finish. It’s early, but the fab shop has Roush has to be breathing a sigh of relief after this one.
*Michael Annett* got a taste of how the other half lives in his debut with Rusty Wallace, Incorporated. On lap 24, an apparently texting Todd Bodine slammed into the back of Annett’s Toyota exiting turn 1, sending the No. 62 into a spin… and the path of Elliott Sadler. Annett completed only 26 laps and finished 39th, his worst finish in Nationwide competition since a 43rd-place result at Talladega last April.
As for *Elliott Sadler’s* title hunt with KHI? Read above. After Bodine dumped Annett, there was absolutely nowhere for Sadler or his Chevrolet to go. Makes one wonder if he wishes he’d declared for Truck Series points instead…
And while we’re still on that wreck, *Mike Wallace* has got to be kicking himself after making an uncharacteristic mistake at a restrictor plate track. Slowing to dodge the remnants of Michael Annett’s machine, Wallace got loose and spun himself around trying to go between that Toyota and Elliott Sadler’s Chevrolet. Instead, he hooked his own machine around, slammed into Sadler’s car and did extensive damage to his rear end. The 37th-place finish marked the fourth consecutive plate result outside the top 25 for one of the sport’s underrated drafters.
Of course, it’s the Onion. Every single person listed above that had a bad day had *Todd Bodine* to thank for it, with Bodine doing his best Donnie Neuenberger impression in bowling over Michael Annett on lap 24 and triggering a multi-car melee. One wreck wasn’t enough, though, as on lap 57 Bodine hooked the already-damaged machine of Sam Hornish, Jr., and sent the sharpest paint scheme of Speedweeks into the inside retaining wall prior to pit road. What goes around comes around, however, as the day got ugly for Bodine himself on lap 104: his front end was damaged in the chaos that ensued after contact between Cassill and Keselowski. When all was said and done, Bodine was 18th, but between Saturday’s carnage as well as the spin he put on Brad Keselowski in the Gatorade Duel on Thursday, there’s probably a number of drivers thankful he won’t be suiting up for the 500 on Sunday.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Jeremy Clements* deserves a shout-out for a career-best plate finish of 16th while driving with the flu, but Saturday’s highest finishing underdog was a far more veteran driver in *Mike Bliss*. The longtime Nationwide driver turned in a 13th-place finish in his debut with Tri-Star Motorsports, the best result for the organization since Jason Keller finished 12th at Bristol last August. With limited local sponsorship on the car this weekend and Bliss faced with the prospect of start-and-parking up to 10 races this season should additional funding not materialize, runs like Saturday’s will prove imperative for both the driver and the No. 19 team.
*Start-and-parkers* occupied 3 of 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $122,496 in prize money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 5 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 9 of 43 spots in the field, and took home $528,098 in prize money.
*Year to Date:*
12 of 43 starting positions occupied
$650,594 dollars won
1 of 1 trophies collected
*Danica-Nation needs to get a freaking grip* – Yes, a 14th-place finish was a career-best, and a top 15 at Daytona is a dream many will never achieve. But before everyone starts anointing this primadonna as the second coming and the savior of stock car racing, let’s take a look at some other highlights of Patrick’s day. Highlights for this one include hanging drafting partner Clint Bowyer out to dry after being pushed to the lead… because her spotter didn’t tell her to let him swap. Highlights including proving completely incapable of understanding how to ride the brake and facilitate a drafting partner, then having to ask the crew whether or not she was supposed to turn the engine off after parking under the red flag. There’s a difference between learning how to drive and not having a clue, and that line was crossed, dug up and spat on this afternoon in Daytona. It’s scary to think there are sportswriters in the media center that know more about these race cars than someone on the track that not only has a license to drive obscenely overpowered cars at high speeds around other human beings, but is getting paid millions to do so. 14th or 40th, anyone listening to the radio this Saturday was feeling loads of secondhand embarrassment… while anyone that says otherwise is kidding themselves and the rest of us.
*Jimmy Means Racing needs a freaking car* – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. deserves a big pat on the back for providing a car for Bobby Santos III to run after a devastating wreck of the team’s only car in Thursday practice. And Santos deserves one as well for scoring a top-20 finish in that same machine. But from what team officials told Frontstretch, without a new car, the No. 52 team is unsure if they can find another one in time for Phoenix, which would jeopardize their plans to run a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2011. One can only hope they find it.
*Same ole Nationwide Series* – For all the hubhub surrounding the new points system and the strong field of regulars pursuing the series title in 2011, it sure looked a lot like the five seasons past on Saturday. A Cup regular won the race. Cup regulars dominated… and on this day I mean dominated… the TV coverage. The race broadcast ended not only with a technical glitch that silenced Victory Lane with the race winner, it also provided not a single interview or comment from any of the top finishing Nationwide Series regulars. Oh, and the highest finishing of those regulars, Landon Cassill? He doesn’t even have a ride for next week. There’s the state of the Nationwide Series for you.
What was perhaps the most telling tale of how this series is nowhere near close to being fixed, though is how those that dominated the field on Saturday did so solely on the back of having tons of seat time the Nationwide regulars didn’t have. The Cup guys in this field (and Trevor Bayne) have had countless laps in Daytona 500 practice and the Gatorade Duels (and in the case of others, even the Bud Shootout) to learn the new asphalt and just how to make these difficult two-car pair drafts work to perfection. Meanwhile, everyone else had Saturday’s 300 miles to learn on the fly. Landon Cassill figured it out, but had to be lucky enough to survive two wrecks to cash in on it. Jason Leffler and Reed Sorenson figured it out, but by the time they did they were too far out of touch with the frontrunners to make a serious charge for the win. Like it or not, with both series running COT cars now, the old days of the Nationwide and Cup cars providing all but transferable seat time are back…and the results are going to show that not just in the draft of Daytona and Talladega, but every companion race on the circuit.
The more things change…
_Some photography for this article provided by “The Hot Lap’s”:http://www.thehotlap.com/ Phil Cavali_
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