Coming off what was a stellar standalone stretch featuring back-to-back short track races, the Nationwide Series turns left (and right) into Watkins Glen International. Just as with any companion race, there’s plenty of chatter surrounding the Cup regulars ready to leave their mark, be they five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in a rare minor league start or Kurt Busch filling in for the injured Brad Keselowski. There’s also the usual cast of road ringers, with 2008 Montreal winner Ron Fellows, Kyle Kelley and others making an appearance.
The lesser-told story is that of the ARCA Racing Series entrants that will be making the rounds on the New York road course this weekend. Three different situations, three different teams, and three different ways that a few of the lesser known drivers in the field just might have a dramatic impact on Saturday’s Zippo 200.
*Most Likely to Get Up to Speed: Andrew Ranger*
For as little as he’s been seen in NASCAR racing, Ranger’s got no shortage of experience driving heavy stock cars on road courses. With four Nationwide starts under his belt between Montreal and Road America, as well as starts on a number of road courses in the K&N Pro West Series, it will not take long for the Canadian to get up to speed when cars take to the track. And that’s going to be hugely beneficial; a field of 50 cars are set to make this field the most competitive the Nationwide Series has seen in 2011.
While that’s not kind to a driver outside the top 30 in owner points, 2011 has been a truly kind season already for the former CART regular. Ranger’s limited stock car outings this season have produced plenty of hardware; poles in the ARCA Racing Series, Canadian Tire Series and K&N Pro Series, a top 10 in NNS competition at Road America, wins on road courses at Toronto in the Canadian Tire Series and at New Jersey in ARCA. Driving for a part-time team has not yet proven to be a detriment to Ranger’s racing efforts, nor has qualifying; outside of missing an ARCA plate race at Daytona, Ranger has never failed to qualify for a major stock car race.
As for his approach behind the wheel, Ranger has won accolades every time he’s raced at Montreal for his unrelenting aggression on the track from flag to flag. That style will translate very well to Watkins Glen, a circuit that with its high speed and more forgiving layout caters as well to stock cars and stock car drivers as any road course in the country. Expect the No. 53 car to qualify well on Saturday and to make some noise under green flag conditions.
*Biggest Question Mark: Tim George Jr.*
On paper, George should be getting some serious looks heading into the weekend. A former race winner in the Rolex Sports Car Series, George is coming off a runner-up finish at Pocono this past weekend and has a fully sponsored Richard Childress Racing entry under him. George is in the top 5 in ARCA points for the first time in his career, won his first ARCA race earlier this season, and has three top 5s in his last four stock car starts. Momentum is on his side.
Problem is, for all that road racing experience, when it comes to stock cars George has so far proven to be a one-trick pony. His only Rolex win came at New Jersey. His only top 5s in ARCA road racing came at New Jersey. His only other stock car starts on road courses were last season, and neither set the world on fire. Racing ARCA at Palm Beach, George finished a very distant eighth in a field that, thanks to rain, was largely either parked or coasting by the midpoint despite having one of the few cars in the field equipped with a full set of road course lights, wipers, etc. Racing Nationwide at Road America, the part-time No. 21 car ran midpack before a hard late race wreck.
George has been difficult to put a finger on. He has run better by leaps and bounds this year than in his previous ARCA campaigns. He’s improved dramatically on all types of tracks, scoring his career best finishes on road courses (fourth at New Jersey), short tracks (runner-up at Berlin) and superspeedways (won at Pocono). And he’s scored twice as many top 5s already in 2011 than in his entire ARCA career prior.
On the other hand though, George hasn’t been flawless either. Incidents including a first-lap spin into the fence at Chicagoland harken back to an ugly 2010 season. After dominating at Berlin, George was toasted on a late-race restart and fumbled the victory away in the closing laps. And then there’s Richard Childress Racing, that for all of it’s success in the Nationwide ranks hasn’t fielded a non-plate entry anywhere in 2011.
This one’s as big a question mark as comes into the weekend.
*Most Likely to Surprise: Casey Roderick*
The driver formerly taking part in a development program with Bill Elliott resurfaced in the middle part of the 2011 ARCA campaign with Randy Hill Racing. Just as a season ago, Roderick came out of nowhere to snag the pole at Palm Beach International Raceway. Then, later that summer, Roderick came out of nowhere and knocked Tim George Jr. out of the way late in the running to score a heated victory at New Jersey Motorsports Park. While Roderick’s oval experience has been far more erratic (an early race wreck at Chicago last year, crashes at both Pocono and Indianapolis this season despite top 5 qualifying runs), he’s proven to take to racing stock cars on road courses like a fish to water.
Go Green Racing has fielded half-decent race cars this season. They’re locked into the top 30, a huge benefit that will give Roderick all of practice to work on learning the Glen and the Nationwide COT. What’s more, the team’s only top 15 finish this season came…on a road course (13th at Road America courtesy of Josh Wise).
Roderick’s done a lot for only two road course starts. He’s won a pole and a race, and did something special in both. At Palm Beach, Roderick was fastest in practice, a pole winner and a contender throughout the race despite both running in the rain and with a backup motor. Winning at New Jersey, Roderick triumphed by using the chrome horn as much as speed on the course.
Anyone looking for a darkhorse Saturday should look no further than the No. 39 car.
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