One week removed from an embarrassing display of Nationwide officiating, an event that saw four of six yellow flags at Nashville fly for invisible debris, the exact opposite happened at Richmond Friday night. Three cautions, two of which occurred in the last 10 laps, were the only breaks in 251 laps of racing at Richmond, an event that was thoroughly dominated by hometown boy Denny Hamlin. The Cup driver continued Joe Gibbs Racing’s full command of the Nationwide Series, playing fill-in on a night that Kyle Busch had the night off and Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards was off the mark. Paul Menard, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-5 finishers in the event.
Though Hamlin was challenged by Aric Almirola at the race’s midpoint, the No. 20 car was by far the class of the field on Friday night, losing none of its steam over the course of the race’s lengthy green flag runs. Those segments wreaked havoc on the field’s fuel mileage calculations, with Scott Wimmer, polesitter Edwards, Charles Lewandoski, and Nationwide title contender Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. all running out of fuel under green flag conditions. For Stenhouse, the error turned a top-5 run into a costly 21st-place finish that dropped him to fifth in points.
Allgaier’s third-place performance, as one of only five cars on the lead lap when the checkered flag flew allowed him to preserve the points lead even as a surging Elliott Sadler scored his fourth top-5 result in the last five races. Sadler and Jason Leffler, though, sit within 10 points of the series lead heading into Darlington.
It was a working man’s night for *Justin Allgaier*, who while never a factor in the battle for the lead somehow scored a third-place finish, a career best at Richmond. More importantly, the top-5 result was the continuation of a wave that has seen the No. 31 team move to the top of the Turner Motorsports stable. A duo of teammates haven’t fared so well; Reed Sorenson remains without a top-5 finish after scoring two to start 2011, while James Buescher went through the worst night any of the Turner teams have endured in the Nationwide ranks all year (the No. 30 car struggled mightily to a 22nd-place finish after qualifying outside the top 35). So for Allgaier to increase his points lead on a night that Elliott Sadler was on the mark at his home track, with both Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Aric Almirola contenders for stellar results of their own, is a testament to what was expected all preseason; that last year’s top Nationwide regular would be this year’s regular to beat.
Speaking of *Sadler*, four top-5 finishes in the last five races have made all the talk of the former Cup regular returning to competitiveness in the minors reality. Scoring his best finish at Richmond since 2005, the Virginia native was right in the thick of it with his fellow title contenders all night long. With Paul Menard second, it was a banner night for the KHI organization short of the No. 33 car coming oh-so-close to Victory Lane. And now, they have the No. 2 team on the same page as his flagship partner; that means there’s no reason to think the top 5s are going to stop for Sadler anytime soon.
There may not be a single race fan out there that would go around describing *Sam Hornish, Jr.* as a short-tracker. But damn if he didn’t play the part convincingly Friday night. In only his fourth start of the 2011 season at any level of stock cars, no less, Hornish came out of nowhere late in qualifying Friday afternoon to snag the outside of the front row, a career-best effort at any track for the three-time IndyCar champion. Fighting through an ugly combination of handling conditions early in the race (lap 42 heard the driver complaining of plowing through both ends and heavily wearing out his right-rear tire), Hornish rebounded for a seventh-place finish that was the best of his Nationwide Series career. It’s also a continuation of success he saw elsewhere, scoring two top 10s at the Cup level at RIR. Keeping his nose clean for 251 laps and delivering a top 10 was a real sign of driver development…and the type of run to keep a sponsor happy. Especially for a driver looking to add races to a part-time schedule…
*Kelly Bires* was handed the keys to the most potent car in the Nationwide Series garage, a legitimate shot at a one-and-done win that could return one of the series’ hottest prospects of last year to relevance. But when the race ended, the results hardly did that. Bires qualified in the top 10 and even posted a faster time trial than that of teammate Denny Hamlin, but the stay up there was shortlived; Bires fell out by lap 30 and ran an unspectacular race mired in the top 15 until lap 124. That’s when he got loose racing under Jason Leffler for position and spun in turn 4, backing into the outside wall. Causing extensive damage to the rear end of his machine, Bires limped around to a 30th-place finish, the worst for the No. 18 team at Richmond since 2007… when Kevin Conway was behind the wheel.
Days after team owner Curtis Key laid down a scathing tirade regarding the frustrations facing Nationwide Series ownership in this day and age, frustrations on the track surfaced as well for the No. 40 team even as they debuted a new sponsor (Draw*Tite hitches). *Scott Wimmer* was the first car in the field to run out of gas on lap 175, leaving the team to finish well off the pace in 24th. With the car desperately seeking sponsor dollars to run even the rest of the month, miscalculations on fuel mileage are simple mistakes that can’t start being made.
*Charles Lewandoski* got to know the pit road of RIR very well; cited for a commitment line violation on lap 110, a frustrated driver set down pit road to serve his penalty… only to get busted for speeding entering the pits to serve it. Coupled with the No. 39 car running out of fuel on lap 210, Lewandoski ended the race in 31st, the same position he started… and demonstrated just how difficult trying to do driver development with a patchquilt of teams, racing with a haphazard schedule is these days. Consistent seat time would go a long way to correcting mistakes such as those that plagued Lewandoski and the Go Green Racing team this Friday night.
*Kenny Wallace* looked to be in the same form that won at Richmond three consecutive years from 1994 to 1996, piloting his No. 09 machine into the top 5 and running very much like a contender. It was by far the stoutest run by the Hermanator since his last to- 5 performance with Jay Robinson Racing back at Memphis in 2008, but it was all for naught. A crucial error came late in the going, when the yellow flag flew on lap 245 for the No. 6 car running out of fuel. Wallace, who had made a splash-and-go stop earlier in the event and was running in the top 10, one lap down, was a wave around away from a last-lap shootout to score a top – finish. Unfortunately, crew chief Scott Zippadelli didn’t realize where his car was running, and ordered Wallace to pit… too early. Wallace was penalized for pitting with the leaders and was thus unable to take the wave around back onto the lead lap, leaving him to score the most disappointing 13th-place finish imaginable. The moral victory that the No. 09 was that stout a car definitely isn’t going to take this sting away.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: David Stremme.* Maybe all that time driving Cup cars for Penske Racing was worth something. Or maybe test drivers really have figured out this NNS COT better than drivers without oodles of seat time. Whatever the explanation, David Stremme proved to be a huge shot in the arm for ML Motorsports’ No. 70 car this weekend, delivering the team’s first top-10 finish of 2011 and best result since Mark Green’s top-5 run at Talladega in 2008. On a weekend that also saw Stremme qualify on time for the debut race of Inception Motorsports’ No. 30 Cup car, the 2003 Rookie of the Year made quite the splash on a weekend that effectively marked his return to big-time stock car racing.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of 41 starting spots in Friday’s field, taking home $87,300 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored 3 of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied five of 41 spots in the field, and took home $118,343 in purse money.
*Year to Date*
123 of 382 starting positions occupied (32.2%)
$2,944,077 dollars won
9 of 9 trophies collected (100%)
*The Final Word*
* Hats off to Ryan Truex for an eighth-place result, his best in Nationwide competition and the best the No. 99 team has looked on a non-restrictor plate track this season.
* Two drivers that were both put in extremely difficult circumstances deserve commendation for their admirable performances on Friday. One goes to Eric McClure, who despite limping to a 32nd-place finish demonstrated considerable commitment to his profession and his race team by showing up very early Friday morning at Richmond barely a day removed from enduring a direct hit from a tornado that destroyed his family’s home. The results didn’t show just how big a deal it would be for any working person to shake something that traumatic off to come to work, to do their job just like anybody else. The other attaboy goes to Chris Buescher, who – on next-to-no notice – was summoned from his regular ARCA ride in Salem to make his Nationwide Series debut without any of the preparation or fanfare that such a talented prospect typically would command. As rumors swirled about just how serious the ails of Trevor Bayne are, leaving the immediate future of Roush Fenway’s No. 16 team up in the air, Buescher simply showed up at Richmond and went to work. And considering the circumstances, he displayed an impressive amount of focus, driving a smart, clean race that resulted in a top-20 finish. Nothing fancy, for sure.. but it got the job done.
* It’s hard to figure if this is a good or a bad thing, but NASCAR’s going to keep facing short fields if it continues to be as difficult as it is proving to be for smaller teams to get CoT cars built to fit templates. Jennifer Jo Cobb’s No. 13 car never made it onto the track after problems with the roof height were discovered in tech, while a Nationwide Series owner told Frontstretch on Friday afternoon that getting new race cars through the templates before taking them to the track is proving to be an onerous process, especially for teams with limited body shop capacities. NASCAR might deserve applause for sticking to the rules stringently, or they might be chastised for mandating such a touchy-feely car for these teams to have to adapt to. But whatever the verdict on this practice, the fact remains that such a difficult template process is going to put a damper on car counts.
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