So much for a standalone Nationwide Series race. Carl Edwards stormed past Kyle Busch after a fierce side-by-side battle on lap 191 and never looked back, cruising to his second series victory of 2011 and the fourth of his career at Nashville Superspeedway. Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top 5 finishers.
Though Josh Wise was able to use pit strategy to lead five circuits in the later going, the few Cup drivers that chose to forgo an off weekend in favor of racing in Tennessee overwhelmed a shallow Nationwide Series field, leading 218 of the 225 circuits run. With Buschwhackers securing the top four finishing positions, Nationwide regulars posted their worst showing at Nashville since June of 2006, where Paul Menard finished fifth behind Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
Leading the regulars was Stenhouse, whose top-5 result vaulted him into a tie for the points lead with Justin Allgaier. Allgaier finished 11th to wrestle the lead from Turner Motorsports teammate Jason Leffler, who came home a quiet 15th. Elliott Sadler finished a distant 13th, watching a streak of four consecutive top-5 finishes snap.
Anyone looking for a telling yardstick to measure *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s* driver development could not have asked for a better one than a return to the Nashville spring race… an event that the driver of the No. 6 failed to qualify for one season ago. This time, Stenhouse qualified in the top 5 and stayed there all day, scoring not only a career best finish on the Tennessee oval, but a career best on a concrete racing surface as well. What’s more, on a day that saw Roush Fenway Racing’s Mustangs the class of the field, the 2010 Rookie of the Year was able to capitalize on an underwhelming day from closest competitor Turner Motorsports, moving into a tie for the point lead after losing it in ugly fashion at Talladega only one weekend ago. Resilience has been the story of Stenhouse’s career after his disastrous first half of 2010, and perseverance paid off again this Saturday.
*Austin Dillon* rebounded from a disappointing Friday night in the Truck Series event at the same track to score a successful debut with Kevin Harvick, Incorporated, qualifying a career-best third and finishing seventh in his first career start driving a Nationwide Series COT. Dillon demonstrated adaptability in avoiding overdriving corners the way he did in Friday’s Truck event, carrying the flag for KHI on a weekend where the team’s regular driver, Elliott Sadler, seemed to struggle getting a handle on one of the longer concrete circuits out there.
*Josh Wise* was another example of a part-timer carrying the flag for his operation in place of the team’s full-time driver, finishing ninth ahead of teammate Aric Almirola. The finish was Wise’s first top 10 since Gateway last October, a career-best at Nashville and the best result for the No. 7 team since Danica Patrick’s top-5 run at Las Vegas nearly two months ago. ESPN noted during their telecast that JRM has been working hard to get Wise to be more aggressive; the former open-wheeler has driven for a plethora of underfunded teams in his Nationwide career, making his efforts to protect equipment first and foremost almost incompatible with the competitive nature of JRM’s program. Crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. left Wise out in front of the field late in the going on old tires to try and force aggression… and a solidm respectable top 10 was the result.
On a Saturday where Cup teammates Busch and Logano won the pole and each finished in the top 5, *Brian Scott’s* day was over little more than halfway into the event; getting loose on lap 146 exiting turn 2, Austin Dillon made contact with the No. 11 Toyota and sent him into the fence. The resulting contact smashed the right front fender of the machine and sent the Toyota through the backstretch grass, leaving Scott to limp around for the rest of the afternoon to a 22nd-place result, two laps down. Scott’s result was the worst for a JGR entry at Nashville since Joey Logano finished 31st in his second career Nationwide start back in June of 2008.
While there are a number of race teams out there that would give everything they owned to place their two regular cars in the top 20, such results are not going to do much to satisfy *Rusty Wallace, Incorporated.* And after the organization’s teamwork plan blew up in their face in the chaos of Talladega one week ago, Nashville didn’t prove to be much kinder. *Steven Wallace* was involved in an unassisted spin on lap 134 and was visibly out of shape for much of the event in struggling to a 17th-place finish, his worst result not caused by a wreck at the facility since 2008. *Michael Annett* didn’t have a much better afternoon, finishing 19th with a damaged race car after David Reutimann got loose entering turn 2 and slammed into the No. 62 to save his own machine. RWI as an entire operation has still yet to score a top-10 finish in 2011.
Little has been heard or seen from *Mikey Kile* since finishing fifth in ARCA points last year, and that, unfortunately, held true even after 300 miles on Saturday. Kile, making only his second Nationwide Series start and first since this race one year ago, was an absolute non-factor for the entirety of the event, finishing five laps off the pace in 29th. To put that in perspective, between the five cars that Turner Motorsports has run in 2011, the only result the entire operation has posted that was worse than 29th was Reed Sorenson’s 34th-place result at Bristol, and that came courtesy of a blown motor.
While seeing Cup regulars score the top 4 positions on their off-weekend was ugly enough, *Tri-Star Motorsports* were further off the pace this weekend than at any other venue thus far in 2011. With *Jeff Green* having cleared off the track after only one lap in his start-and-park effort, both *Mike Bliss* and *Eric McClure* raced in futility all afternoon long, finishing 31st and 32nd, seven and eight laps off the pace, respectively. For McClure, it was his worst result at Nashville since 2007; for Bliss, since way back in 2003.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: David Stremme.* While *Mike Wallace* did an admirable job bouncing back from the supreme disappointment of last weekend’s Talladega finish to deliver an 18th-place result for his No. 01 team, their second straight top 20, Stremme’s own top-20 performance in his first Nationwide Series start since 2008 trumped that. The solid start, his first with ML Motorsports was of supreme significance for the No. 70 team. Not only was it their first top-20 finish of 2011, the result also moved the team ahead of R3 Motorsports’ No. 23 car… and back into the top 30 in owner points. Would have been nice for the TV cameras to actually make note of, well all of the storylines surrounding driver and team this weekend.
Start-and-parkers occupied 9 of the 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $91,026 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 4 of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied 5 of the 43 spots in the field, and took home $127,400 in purse money.
*Year to Date*
111 of 341 starting positions occupied (32.6%)
$2,738,434 dollars won
8 of 8 trophies collected (100%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
*Mike Bliss*, *Danny O’Quinn*, *Kevin Conway*, *Jeremy Clements*, *Scott Wimmer*, *Eric McClure*, *Derrike Cope* and *Morgan Shepherd* were all entries that did not start-and-park Saturday and were not mentioned in any capacity during ESPN’s telecast. Further, *JR Fitzpatrick*, *Mikey Kile*, *David Stremme*, *Blake Koch*, *Mike Wallace* and *Robert Richardson* were all mentioned only throughout the telecast as lapped traffic, with no camera time given to their cars. Rookie of the Year standings leader *Timmy Hill* was mentioned only after his shredded tire brought out the yellow flag. That’s 15 of the 29 cars in the field that did not start-and-park or were not being wheeled by Cup drivers (*51.7%*) that were not covered or only mentioned in passing. On a freaking standalone weekend.
*The Final Word…On Who You Didn’t See*
* David Stremme replaced Shelby Howard in the No. 70 car after Howard amicably split from the team, according to a press release. The first NASCAR start of any kind for the 2003 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2011, Stremme scored the team’s best finish of the season.
* J.R. Fitzpatrick drove his first race for Go Canada Racing (No. 67), finishing a distant 27th.
* Robert Richardson retired 72 laps short of the finish with a blown motor, a result that dropped the No. 23 team out of the top 30 heading to Richmond.
* Kevin Conway wheeled the No. 87 car for NEMCO Motorsports to a 24th-place result, the first time in 2011 that Joe Nemechek did not drive the team’s flagship Nationwide Series entry only one week removed from a top-5 result at Talladega.
* Willie Allen started and parked the No. 05 car for the first time in 2011, the first time the No. 05 team has failed to go the distance since Michigan last August. Kind of a bummer for a Tennessee native to have to do that in his home state.
*The Final Word*
* Anyone else notice how Means Motorsports’s No. 52 team was listed on Jayski as having signed a four-race sponsor earlier in the week, yet, by the end of Saturday, that news release was gone and the No. 52 car started and parked?
* 18,000 was the reported crowd for Saturday’s race. Finally, an attendance estimate that appeared accurate on camera.
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