To call Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first career win this Sunday at Iowa poetic would be understating it. To win, the 2010 Rookie of the Year held off teammate and full-time Buschwhacker Carl Edwards scarcely 12 hours removed from his win in the Sprint All-Star Race. What’s more, the win came at a track that short of Nashville was the home of Stenhouse’s worst effort from his tumultuous rookie season; the driver of the No. 6 car wrecked both of his team’s machines the last time the series tackled Iowa Speedway, then crashed the third car during the race.
But the 2011 edition out in corn country was a time to put those demons to rest. Stenhouse’s win marked the first of the season for a Nationwide Series regular, making Stenhouse the first non-Cup driver to win an NNS race since Boris Said took the checkers at Montreal last summer. Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top 5. Sorenson was among the class of the field for much of the afternoon, but a mid-race run with a slow leak in a tire left the No. 32 mired back in traffic as the race was decided.
The event was one of the most uneventful seen on a short track in recent memory, with only five cautions slowing what was largely a green-flag race. On the strength of his fifth-place run, Sadler maintained the points lead by seven markers over Sorenson, while Stenhouse moved up to third on the strength of his win. With the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team skipping Iowa after Trevor Bayne was not cleared to race, they fell out of the top 30 in owner points, allowing the No. 89 of Morgan Shepherd to lock in heading to Charlotte.
A freaking Nationwide Series regular won a race! *Ricky Stenhouse Jr.* absolutely defied the standard practice of the Nationwide Series one year ago, somehow keeping his ride despite wrecking just about every car Roush Fenway Racing had in their shop. Now, not even midway through year two, he’s in victory lane. Given the strength that the Roush Mustangs have showed all throughout 2011, it’s easy to argue that the No. 6 team may be the stoutest Nationwide regular entry in the 2011 title chase. Plus, with the No. 16 team’s future in hiatus until Trevor Bayne is cleared to race again, the No. 6 team is now the prime focus in the RFR shop, with the No. 60 ineligible for this year’s driver title. Only question is, as strong as those horses showed on Sunday…would they have been strong enough to hold off Joey and Kyle?
Overcoming adversity was the story for three other title contenders at Iowa. *Reed Sorenson* battled hard to score his fourth place finish in another extremely strong entry for the No. 32 team, after the team endured a rough run in the middle of the race with one of their tires slowly leaking (the driver in post-race interviews estimated that the tire lost 12 pounds of air during the run), actually gaining ground in the points race leaving the plains. *Elliott Sadler* rebounded to finish fifth after again getting nailed for speeding entering pit road, this time committing the gaffe visibly on replay cameras. Stellar pit work by the KHI No. 2 team produced yet another top 5 finish however. And then there’s *Justin Allgaier*, who wrecked his primary car in practice and was forced to start at the rear of the field with no laps in his backup. By race’s end, Allgaier had led laps and finished eighth, despite the backup car being of a lesser quality than crew chief Jimmy Elledge would have preferred. With the exception of Stenhouse’s jump in the standings, many of the series’ title contenders held serve through challenging circumstances.
Joe Gibbs Racing handed the keys to the field’s two strongest cars over to two drivers not named Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and while they didn’t dominate as they’re used to, the true strength of their race cars definitely shined through. Combining with his teammate to lead 58 laps, *Michael McDowell* finished seventh in his debut with the team, regardless of having spent the past season and a half driving Nationwide for the underfunded MacDonald Motorsports team and start-and-parking for Phil Parsons on the Cup side. Shaking all that rust off to come home seventh in his first race was no small accomplishment. Same could be said for *Drew Herring*, who in only his fifth career Nationwide Series start was a seeming lock for a top 10, sans two stall-outs in the pits that cost the No. 20 team a ton of track position. On track, both drivers proved more than capable of handling JGR’s vaunted Camrys. Here’s hoping they didn’t get too attached, driver development hasn’t been the point of that NNS program for a long time now.
*Kenny Wallace* scored his 163rd career top 10 finish in his 500th career start. Wallace became the second driver in series history to reach the 500 start mark.
*Josh Wise* didn’t last 25 laps before having to pit the No. 7 car for extended repairs to the car’s brake systems. His 29th place finish, combined with *Aric Almirola’s* lackluster 17th place showing in the No. 88, capped a ‘blah’ weekend for the JR Motorsports operation, even as Almirola was carrying the colors of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the race leading up to this weekend’s induction ceremonies.
*Jason Leffler* entered the weekend as one of only three drivers in the field to have scored top 5 finishes in every Nationwide Series race run at Iowa. That streak did not survive this Sunday. While all three of his Turner Motorsports teammates turned in top 10 performances, Leffler picked up damage in a traffic jam on a lap 123 restart and spun on his own volition a lap later under green. A backmarker for much of the afternoon, Leffler’s 33rd place finish was his worst of 2011 and worst on a short track since Richmond in the spring of 2007.
*Ryan Truex* and the No. 99 team entered Sunday’s race expecting their best race of 2011, expressing considerable confidence in their car as Truex entered his second-to-last contracted race with the team. Starting 15th though, the No. 99 car did not take off on the start and make its way forward. Mired in mid-pack, Truex brought out a lap 111 caution when he blew a right front tire and smacked the turn 2 wall, leaving his unsponsored ride to limp around to a 34th place result, his worst career short-track result and worst of the year with Pastrana-Waltrip Racing. With sponsorship still lacking and the summer stretch that will see Travis Pastrana make his debut with the team approaching, the future appears a bit murky for the two-time East Series champion.
*Amber* and *Angela Cope* each made their Nationwide Series debuts, each had spins of their own, and each finished at least 20 laps down (Angela finished 20 laps down in 28th, Amber was parked for not meeting minimum speed and finished 47 laps down in 32nd). The twins, who hadn’t raced in NASCAR since making their Truck debuts back at Martinsville last October, looked every bit like having raced once in six months…and once at this level their entire career. This example of driver development is mind-boggling at best.
The incident that ended up getting Amber Cope parked came after *Brian Scott*, trying to evade the much slower No. 93 car on the track, moved down directly into the path of a hard-charging Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who ended up sending the No. 11 into the fence, the third straight wreck for JGR’s third car. Scott’s third consecutive crash was ugly enough, but it’s hard to not point fingers at the spotter for the No. 11 team allowing his driver to apparently be surprised by the slow car in the corner the way he was. Iowa may be technically considered a short track, but 200 laps into the race on a track nearly a mile long, this wreck was hardly unavoidable.
*Underdog Perfomer of the Race: Scott Wimmer* Jeremy Clements finished ahead of Wimmer in the 14th position, but Wimmer’s performance after two consecutive weeks of start-and-parking his former ride with Key Motorsports was a much-needed effort for a driver in need of a new home fast. Taking over for David Stremme, who was busy with his Cup ride in Charlotte, Wimmer delivered the second consecutive top 15 finish for ML Motorsports ever since parting ways with previous driver Shelby Howard. The result was also only the second top 15 finish for Wimmer in 2011, his best on a short-track since Bristol last spring.
Start-and-parkers occupied 9 of 43 starting positions in Sunday’s field, taking home $105,423 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored 2 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 3 of the 43 starting positions in Sunday’s field, taking home $113,343 in purse money.
148 of 511 starting positions occupied (28.9%)
$3,619,357 dollars won
11 of 12 trophies collected (91.7%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
Timmy Hill, Blake Koch, Dennis Setzer, Robert Richardson, Eric McClure, Morgan Shepherd and Darryl Harr all ran the distance for Sunday’s race and were not mentioned in any capacity during ESPN’s telecast, marking 7 of 31 entries not involved in an incident, driven by a Cup regular or start-and-parking that were not covered in any capacity (22.6%). In addition, Mike Bliss, Mike Wallace and Luis Martinez Jr. were only mentioned in passing or as lapped traffic, bringing the total to 10 of 31 entries (32.2%)
*The Final Word: Who You Didn’t See*
* ESPN’s telecast deserves credit for drawing attention to the Cope twins and Jennifer Jo Cobb early in the going, with coverage that included camera time for each race car. Unfortunately, the three drivers didn’t have anything flashy to boast about after becoming the first three women to start the same Nationwide Series event.
* Tri-Star Motorsports finally had a day without mechanical calamity or a damaged race car, with Mike Bliss scoring a top 20 finish and Eric McClure finishing 23rd, his best finish since Las Vegas and a solid points day that kept his No. 14 back in the top 30 in owner points.
* Darryl Harr’s 24th place result for the No. 52 team was a career-best Nationwide Series result for the Canadian, and the second top-25 in the last three weeks for the Means Racing operation.
* Morgan Shepherd’s No. 89 team is now locked into the Nationwide Series field after finishing 20th in his 300th career start, his first top 20 since Las Vegas.
*The Final Word*
* Full grandstands just look better on TV don’t they? Iowa Speedway had another strong crowd on hand for their standalone race, the first of two this year. Come on Midwestern race fans, don’t let it fall off for race number two later this year.
While Carl Edwards was still the primary focus of Sunday’s broadcast, it was very enjoyable to see ESPN honed in on the actual Nationwide Series regulars up front. * Still, for a standalone race, there were a lot of drivers that didn’t get a whole lot of camera time, even when running well. The Rusty Wallace Incorporated cars were both top 10 entries throughout, yet take away pit stop recaps and they were hardly ever seen. On a day full of green flag runs and only a handful of big names in the field, covering the entire Nationwide Series field for once would have been a nice touch.
* For as healthy as the crowd was, nine start-and-parks says an awful lot about the health of the Nationwide Series. It’s going to be rough seeing Charlotte Motor Speedway a cavernous hole on Saturday after seeing what was seen at Iowa this weekend.
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