Kyle Busch led 49 of 147 laps en route to winning the Royal Purple 200 at Darlington Friday night, his fifth Nationwide Series victory of the 2011 season and his first at the Darlington Raceway. Busch’s victory came despite his making heavy contact with the wall early in the event, damage that at the time allowed both Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne to make their way past the polesitter (qualifying was rained out, putting the No. 18 in position one to start the event).
Busch’s return to victory lane was aided by a large wreck on lap 95 that thinned the field of a number of the leaders. Following Michael Annett’s wreck on lap 89, a variety of pit strategies stuck the leaders in the middle of the pack, while half a dozen drivers opted to take two or no tires and secure track position. Exiting turn 2, Denny Hamlin went three-wide with Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola; with Bowyer in the middle, his No. 33 clipped the rear end of Almirola’s machine, sending the No. 88 spinning on the backstretch in front of oncoming traffic. The resulting melee took out a number of cars, including Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, who had been running up front early.
It was a solid night for the top 2 in Nationwide points, with Elliott Sadler chipping into Justin Allgaier’s lead with a third-place finish. Allgaier, however, finished fourth, mitigating the damage while also nullifying top 10 results for Jason Leffler, Reed Sorenson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The experience that Kevin Harvick Incorporated was counting on in signing *Elliott Sadler* to a full-season deal for 2011 shone through in droves on Friday night. Sadler’s third-place finish, his sixth top 5 of 2011 (tops among Nationwide regulars) was not only his sixth in the last seven races, it was also scored under difficult circumstances. Miscommunication following the yellow flag on lap 89 for Michael Annett’s wreck left the No. 2 car out on the track not only on old rubber, but needing to stretch fuel to make it to the checkers (Sadler went from lap 76 to the end of the event on the same tank of gas). Caution laps helped, but scoring a top 5 at Darlington on worn rubber while conserving fuel is nothing short of admirable. Taking a small bite out of Justin Allgaier’s points lead in the process was icing on the cake.
Speaking of *Allgaier*, for details of his fourth place result, see above, though his team had opted to stay out rather than succumbing to confusion on pit road. And that success wasn’t confined to the No. 31 team, as the Turner Motorsports operation had a stellar weekend as a whole. *Reed Sorenson* finished eighth without a scratch on his No. 32 car, a career-best for the Georgia native on the track too tough to tame, and he had to work for it; lap 3 saw Sorenson make one of the better saves of the evening after contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. nearly sent him spinning in turn 1. And *Jason Leffler* enjoyed his first finish in the single digits since Bristol with a ninth place run, overcoming an early bout with two-tire strategy that saw his No. 30 car drop from the lead to outside the top 10 over the course of a run. Despite a surging Sadler and the ever-present Roush powerhouse backing Stenhouse, the Turner camp is still making a strong case as the Nationwide team to beat in 2011.
Another trio that enjoyed welcome results was the *Wallace family*, with all three of them finishing in the top 15. *Steven Wallace* led the way and finished fifth, the first top 10 result for the No. 66 team in 2011 and first top 5 since Gateway last July was something the driver said “felt like a win post-race.” There’s no doubt that the pairing of Wallace and Annett has underachieved for RWI so far this season, and that this run was sorely needed. *Kenny Wallace* finished 11th, his third consecutive top 15 finish for the No. 09 team and his best result at Darlington since 2005. And *Mike Wallace* continued a strong spring for his No. 01 team with a 15th place finish, scoring his first top 15 of 2011, his third top 20 result in the last four races, and his best finish since Kansas last fall.
*Tri-Star Motorsports* endured another rough weekend at Darlington. *Mike Bliss* was caught up in the lap 94 melee (and had the only car involved in the wreck not mentioned on TV) and finished 30th, his third finish of 30th or worse in the last four races. Teammate *Eric McClure* got it even worse, completing only 12 laps thanks to a faulty fuel pump. The driver of the No. 14 car finished a distant 36th, his worst finish of 2011. Even more distressing, the finish dropped the No. 14 team out of the top 30 in owner points heading to Dover.
*Scott Wimmer* was also gone in the blink of an eye Friday night, finishing 38th after completing only 11 laps before retiring his unsponsored No. 40 car with “handling” woes. While this observation has not yet been confirmed, one can’t help but wonder if that translates into the Key Motorsports operation turning to start-and-park; Dustin Long reported last week that team owner Curtis Key was beyond frustrated trying to find sponsorship and simply pay for the expenses of owning his Nationwide race team, and that he was unsure of what the team would actually be able to do past Richmond. Sadly, that answer appears to have shown itself under the lights Friday night.
*Aric Almirola’s* tenure in the No. 88 car has certainly not been what both driver and team were hoping for as they paired up for 2011. Starting in the top 10, Almirola dropped back at the start of the race, eventually settling in between 10th and 12th for much of the evening. That all went out the window in the race’s “big one” on lap 94, where Almirola’s No. 88 ended up the victim of Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin’s three-wide duel. “It’s impossible to race three-wide here without wrecking” Almirola remarked in his post-crash interview, also going as far as to express his frustration with being the victim of a situation created by two drivers that were just racing for fun on Friday night. Almirola finished 28th.
*Brian Scott’s* evening started on the rough side, when contact with the turn 2 wall on a lap 32 restart resulted in more than a cosmetic Darlington stripe for his No. 11 machine. But courtesy of the lap 94 incident, Scott endured the hardest hit of Friday night, plowing headfirst into the interior backstretch retaining wall in a wreck that saw the SAFER barriers of the facility visibly flex on impact. Scott fortunately walked away from the wreck unscathed, but the 29th place finish that resulted was his career-worst at Darlington and the worst for a JGR entry at the track since 2007.
*Underdog Perfomer of the Race: Scott Riggs* It took two lucky dogs and a number of Darlington stripes, but Scott Riggs delivered in a big-time way driving the No. 23 car for R3 Motorsports. Not only did the Nationwide Series veteran finish 13th, the best result for the No. 23 team of 2011, their best since Montreal with Jean Francois Dumoulin driving back in 2009 (and Riggs’ best result at any level of NASCAR at Darlington since 2003), his finish allowed R3 to capitalize on Eric McClure’s misfortunes and move back into the top 30 in owner points for Dover. Here’s hoping Riggs scores some more races as a result; his Friday performance certainly merits it.
A shout-out as well to *Danny Efland*, both for the save he made to avoid the lap 94 wreck and for a career-best 16th place finish.
Start-and-parkers occupied 9 of the 43 starting positions in Friday’s field, taking home $93,223 in purse money (note: Jennifer Jo Cobb and Scott Wimmer also completed only 53 laps between the two of them before bowing out for listed mechanical woes, but for this week were not included in the count).
Cup regulars won Friday night’s race, scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $133,678 in purse money.
139 of 425 starting positions occupied (32.7%)
$3,170,978 dollars won
10 of 10 trophies collected (100%)
*The Final Word: Who You Didn’t See*
* Both Scott Wimmer and Eric McClure, two full-timers on the circuit, were out of the race scarcely 20 laps in, yet no updates were provided on what happened to their machines.
* Timmy Hill finished in the top 20 for the second time in the last three races, and did so with a return sponsor in Lilly Trucking adorning the primary spot on his No. 15 car for this event.
* Jeremy Clements had sponsor Co-OpsUSA.com back on his No. 51 for the second consecutive weekend and was running in the top 20 before retiring 37 laps short of the finish with a transmission issue; his departure from the race despite the run went undocumented.
* Blake Koch finished 18th, only the third top-20 finish of his career in Nationwide competition.
* Kevin Lepage ran the distance and finished 21st, his first top 25 finish since Daytona in July of 2008 and only the fifth race he’s been running at the finish at in that span.
*The Final Word*
* Friday’s race saw a number of heavily damaged race cars able to power their way back through the field. Kyle Busch won the race despite pounding the wall very early in the event, visibly caving in the sheet metal on the passenger side of his No. 18 behind the right front wheel well. Carl Edwards rebounded from lap 94 crash damage that smashed up his right rear quarter panel and caused nose damage to drive back into the top 10 before again finding the wall in the closing laps. And his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Chris Buescher rebounded to finish 17th despite a blown tire that resulted from contact with Danny Efland on lap 39; the tire ripped away a significant amount of sheet metal from the No. 16. It’s hard to say whether such durability is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, it’s great to know that a brush with the wall isn’t going to upset a car enough to take a driver from contention. On the other, is it really a good thing to be able to continually pound the fence and still drive away? Also of note…these cars all came out of the Roush and Gibbs stables. Perhaps, more than anything else, it’s just a statement on just how much better their cars are than just about everyone else’s.
* James Hylton became the oldest driver to start a Nationwide Series race when he took the green flag Friday in the No. 0. Oldest driver to “start” is right…because that’s all Hylton did, completing only two laps before parking his machine in 43rd. Sad thing is, Hylton got more TV mentions for doing that than Morgan Shepherd did for both starting and finishing Friday’s race.
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