It seems that Kyle Busch has found his Nationwide nemesis at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and thy name is Kenseth. Driving his first Nationwide Series race since Atlanta last September and his first at CMS since the fall of 2009, Kenseth stormed past Carl Edwards with XX laps to go to win his 26th career Nationwide trophy, a triumphant return for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 team after skipping the previous weekend’s race at Iowa. Edwards, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Reed Sorenson rounded out the top 5.
Despite being run in heated sunlight during the peak of the afternoon in Charlotte, the tire package provided ample grip, which led to the race being slowed only five times for the yellow flag, the fewest any Nationwide event at Charlotte has seen since 2009. A combination of both the surprisingly grippy tire and a field that from 20th on back was racing simply to make laps led to a race that was low on both incidents and, to a larger degree, side-by-side racing.
Elliott Sadler, whose No. 2 team did a considerable amount of trial-and-error work on their setup both through practice Thursday and 300 miles Saturday, finished a disappointing 10th, his worst finish since Nashville. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. following up his win at Iowa last weekend by finishing fourth, the Roush Fenway prospect moved to second in points, one marker behind Sadler for the series lead. Reed Sorenson sits in third, only two markers removed from the lead.
As he’s running for a championship, its arguable that being the first Nationwide regular to win a race in 2011 actually added pressure to the shoulders of *Ricky Stenhouse Jr.* Fortunately for Roush Fenway Racing, the driver and the No. 6 team showed no signs of letting up even after their breakthrough victory, winning the pole Saturday morning and proceeding to score a fourth-place finish that equaled Stenhouse’s career-best on a 1.5-mile oval. Leading laps and running in the top 5 on a weekend that the Roush Mustangs were clearly the class of the field (Cup teammates Kenseth and Edwards ran 1-2) was a strong performance for the No. 6 team as the Nationwide Series approaches a stretch of standalone races. With this kind of momentum, there’s a real chance that June could see multiple wins, and a significant points lead, in the cards for Roush’s only shot at the driver’s title in 2011.
*Reed Sorenson* carried the banner on a disappointing day for Turner Motorsports, finishing fifth and closing to within two points of the top spot in the standings with his best Charlotte result since 2005. More significantly, the result marked the third consecutive top 5 result for the No. 32 team, the first time Sorenson has accomplished the feat since the summer of 2006. Sorenson earned himself a full-time ride in the No. 32 on the backs of his supreme consistency in 2010, scoring 21 top 10 finishes in 28 races. Taking the step from consistent top 10s to consistent top 5s is a big one, and one that will keep one of Turner’s flagship rides in competition for this title no matter how hot the Roush Mustangs get.
*Aric Almirola* has had a disappointing 2011 season at the helm of JR Motorsports’ No. 88 car, but managed to secure a top 10 finish on Saturday despite real adversity. Overcoming an unscheduled pit stop under green on lap 100, Almirola proved able to methodically move back up through traffic to finish ninth, equaling his best result of the year.
*Sam Hornish Jr.* delivered yet another solid finish in his limited 2011 slate on the intermediate ovals, qualifying in the top 10 and finishing 12th in the No. 12 Dodge. Considering the circumstances behind the team, which utilizes Penske personnel on temporary assignment from their permanent positions in the race shop, to run consistently in the top 15 as they have in five starts through 2011 is a notable accomplishment as well as vindication of sorts for Hornish. A driver who was rushed into Cup racing at the demands of sponsor Mobil One, the IRL standout is finally demonstrating progress as a driver. Being in the development ride he should have been in years ago would lend well to that.
*Steve Wallace* finished seventh, a career-best result at Charlotte.
*Blake Koch* had a No. 81 Dodge that was impossible to miss on the track, sporting a hot pink paint scheme this Saturday in Charlotte. Problem is, it wasn’t on track long. Koch blew a motor on lap 82 and dropped oil over nearly the entire length of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, leaving the MacDonald Motorsports team with a 34th place finish, their second DNF in the last three races after an early wreck back at Dover.
*Robert Richardson* and the No. 23 team left CMS with another banged up race car; lap 34 saw Richardson push up the track in turn 3 and clip the No. 28 of Derrike Cope. Cope made an impressive save to minimize the damage done to his machine, but Richardson’s car suffered heavy damage to the right side after contact with the wall. The No. 23 car would return for a few more laps, but completed only 42 circuits in finishing 36th, last among drivers that didn’t start-and-park.
*Jeffrey Earnhardt’s* first Nationwide Series start since 2009 was in no way equivalent to the drama his season has featured off-track with Rick Ware Racing. The subject of a very public dispute over a Truck Series sponsor (a sponsor that bolted from both Earnhardt and Rick Ware Racing soon after), Earnhardt was making his first race start since Martinsville in the No. 41 car, but rear end troubles parked the hometown driver after only 71 laps; the 35th place finish was a career-worst for Earnhardt.
*Key Motorsports*, already start-and-parking and out of the top 30 in owner points with their No. 40 entry, rolled out a second No. 46 car for Charlotte race weekend. On Saturday morning, just two cars failed to qualify for the afternoon’s race…the Nos. 40 and 46. Going 0 for 2, missing the hometown race and any form of payday that comes along with was just the latest blow in a season that, through lack of sponsorship and owner frustration, has brought one of the more stalwart independent operations in the Nationwide Series to its knees. Saturday marked the first time a Nationwide Series team has had two entries miss the field since Rick Ware Racing saw Stanton Barrett and Kevin O’Connell fail to qualify at Montreal last August.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Danny Efland* The way the long-time kart veteran has been running, he’s got to be hoping that Josh Wise finds his own full-time ride, fast. Efland finished 19th Saturday, his second top 20 finish in his last three starts with the No. 39 Go Green Racing team, as well as the second top 20 finish of his career. The result was also Efland’s best in four career Charlotte starts.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of 43 positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $72,469 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored four of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 8 of the 43 positions in the field, and took home $188,550 in purse money.
163 of 554 starting positions occupied (29.4%)
$3,880,376 dollars won
12 of 13 trophies collected (92.3%)
*The Final Word*
* The crowd was not 45,000 as reported. Thankfully, attendance was still noticeably improved over this race one year ago.
* Kimi Raikkonen had a respectable debut race until making contact with the wall, forcing him to make a green flag pit stop for repairs, and a second for a pit road speeding penalty. Raikkonen finished 27th.
* Truck Series points leader Cole Whitt made his first Nationwide start of 2011 as well, running as high as sixth before fading to 15th over the final few runs of the race. The result was still only the fifth top 15 result for Pastrana/Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 team this season.
* Why, exactly, did Roush Fenway Racing have to put Kenseth in the No. 16 seat? Why not give the seat to Chris Buescher, who was enjoying an off weekend for ARCA competition? Or how about giving Kevin Swindell another shot after Alex Kennedy ruined his Dover race a few weeks back? Or how about calling up Erik Darnell? There’s a laundry list of names that could and should have been in that seat.
* Between the growing number of start-and-parks and just how many entries are in the field simply making laps to preserve their equipment and survive, expect a lot more snoozer shows like Saturday’s as the Nationwide Series season continues.
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