Kyle Busch scored his 50th career Nationwide Series victory under the lights at Bristol on Friday night, winning by merely a foot or so after a spirited charge from teammate Joey Logano on the final lap. Logano got underneath Busch in Turn 2 on the last circuit and the two battled side-by-side to the stripe, with the momentum on the upper side of the track proving to make the difference in what was an otherwise quiet race up front. Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Aric Almirola rounded out the top-5 finishers.
Though much was made of Busch’s car not being the dominant force that it has been in the past at Bristol, the No. 18 still paced the field for 186 of the 250 laps run Friday night. Instead, Clint Bowyer was the fastest car for much of the evening, but track position ended up meaning a lot as the tire compound being run provided little advantage for fresh rubber (Logano nearly stole the win on old Goodyears). Tires proved to be the cause of most of the race’s yellow flags as well; three of the five cautions were caused by single-car wrecks triggered by their failures.
Friday’s race was an anti-climatic chapter in the 2011 title chase, as all three contenders delivered underwhelming performances. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. struggled with handling and was seen visibly holding up traffic for much of the evening en route to finishing 11th; Elliott Sadler ran eighth on a night that he was expected to contend for the win (Sadler won his first Cup race at Bristol back in 2001); and Reed Sorenson simply was a non-factor, never doing much of anything en route to 12th. As a result, Stenhouse maintained a narrow lead of 5 points over Sadler and 10 over Sorenson heading into Atlanta this coming weekend.
With the signing of Danica Patrick to a full-time ride at JR Motorsports in 2012, and the money and resources that are undoubtedly going to accompany such a signing, it’s hard to blame *Aric Almirola* for spending much of his post-race remarks talking about maintaining a role at JRM next season and his excitement to play the mentor for IndyCar’s latest transplant to stock cars. Fortunately for Almirola, the past month has finally seen the No. 88 team running as they were expected to, a trend that continued Friday night at Bristol. Finishing fifth at a short track that he’s had no shortage of success at (including a top-10 Cup finish) also translated into his sixth top 10 in the last seven races, as well as the lead finish for all Nationwide regulars. Sitting fourth in points, the consistency element has finally emerged at JRM. Next up, Almirola needs to start challenging for wins; he’s led only 22 laps in 25 races this season.
*Michael Annett* scored a career-best finish with a quiet sixth-place run at Bristol, his first top-10 result since Loudon and first on a short track since the Nationwide Series visited Iowa last summer. In the bigger picture, Annett is also within five markers of moving up to ninth in the point standings, a result that would be the best of his tenure in Nationwide racing to date.
*Parker Kligerman* became the third consecutive driver to deliver a strong showing behind the wheel of No. 22 in relief of Brad Keselowski, scoring a ninth-place finish that marked his first top 10 in NNS racing since Montreal last summer. Still, the Truck Series regular had to be left wondering what could have been; Kligerman showed flashes of having a top-5 car at points Friday night and had to make up a good deal of track position after spinning on lap 146 trying to force his way under Stenhouse. Still, the result marked two consecutive top 10s in the Bristol night race for Kligerman. Hint, hint, Penske Racing… this guy, the No. 22. Full-time. Make it happen.
*Jason Leffler* always seems to deliver results when he’s out of his primary No. 38 ride, and Friday was no exception, as Leffler finished seventh in a performance that carried the flag for Turner Motorsports. Hardly surprising; for Leffler, that was his ninth consecutive top-15 result at Bristol dating back to 2007.
*Kenny Wallace* stood poised to make some serious noise on the track his brother used to own after qualifying fourth, his best time trial effort since the fall race of 2006 at Phoenix. The luster of that performance disappeared almost from the drop of the green flag, though, as Wallace lost positions almost immediately from the start of the race. A solid if not spectacular evening nonetheless disappeared for good, on Lap 136 when the No. 09 car lost a tire and pounded the fence. After finishing no worse than 12th, in a six-race stretch from Daytona to Iowa Wallace has now averaged a 28th-place result in the latter part of August.
*Jeremy Clements* was another driver who ended up suffering from a tire failure, scuffing the fence on lap 125 and dropping debris that brought out the second yellow of the evening. Clements and crew were able to get the car to pit road and continue, but the damage was done: he ended up finishing 31 laps behind in 32nd place. The result was the No. 51 team’s worst on an oval since losing an axle 59 laps short of the finish at Fontana in the spring; sadly, considering the advantage short tracks can give underdogs at times the timing couldn’t be worse. Clements now sits 16th in the points, still an admirable effort in his ongoing first full-time campaign on the NNS circuit.
Of all the tire failure-induced accidents, *David Starr’s* was the nastiest in more ways than one. In terms of damage, there was little left of the right side of the No. 05 car after the Truck Series regular hit the fence on Lap 191. On a worse note, though, it was heavy damage for a team that’s been seldom seen on the Nationwide circuit since the switch to the COT car. Making only its fifth start in 2011, the No. 05 Day Motorsports car endured its second consecutive wreck at Bristol; remember, Willie Allen crashed 96 laps from the checkers back in the spring. Starr’s 33rd-place finish, an ugly result was his worst since the fall race at Texas last year.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Bliss.* Bliss scored his fourth top-20 finish in the last five races with an 18th-place result at Bristol, only one circuit off the pace. The race was a dramatic improvement for Tri-Star’s No. 19 team (they finished five laps off the pace in 26th back in the spring) and marked the team’s fifth consecutive top 20 on a short track.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Friday night’s race, taking home $114,995 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored four of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied seven of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $182,695 in purse money.
314 of 1,066 starting positions occupied (29.5%)
$6,877,648 dollars won
21 of 25 trophies collected (84%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
* USAR Pro Cup veteran Benny Gordon ran his first Nationwide Series race since 2009 in a second No. 04 entry for Go Green Racing, finishing 28th while outrunning the team’s primary No. 39 car (Fain Skinner finished 30th in his second NNS start).
* Kevin Conway drove an Extenze-branded car for the first time since Daytona in July and only the fifth time in 2011, finishing 29th in the No. 87 car.
* Scott Wimmer ran 24th, his best result driving the Key Motorsports No. 40 car since Richmond back in the spring. Key Motorsports placed all four of its cars in the field after going only one-for-four at Montreal a week ago.
* Blake Koch was the hardest charger of the race, finishing 23rd after starting 40th.
*The Final Word*
* Kyle Busch set the all-time wins record. It’s over. O-V-E-R. Another narrative please.
* With only five cautions, this was yet another Bristol race that, by the old track configuration’s standards, was tame. And the rationale for that is two-fold. One, as has been previously documented by interviews with Kevin Lepage and others throughout the year, the majority of the Nationwide Series field is racing the track more than the pack, counting on the preservation of their equipment to get through a full schedule in 2011. That lack of aggression does translate into fewer wrecks, but that’s not a bad thing… as long as the side-by-side racing the new Bristol is capable of producing actually plays out. Problem is, given how fast the track is and how much time is spent in the corners, without aggression, side-by-side racing carries on only briefly for laps that are short to begin with. Racing preservation, especially on a track that lends itself to conveyor belt racing when the field is strung out leads to the type of event we saw at Bristol Friday night. Sad thing is, this battle for survival is proving just as able as the Chase for the Cup side in taking some of the bite from the Bristol night race.
Hey, at least the crowd was better…
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