Despite the best efforts of Kyle Busch to run him down, Carl Edwards topped a dominant evening with his 35th career Nationwide Series win Saturday night in front of a stellar crowd at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top five.
Though Edwards led 101 of the 195 laps led en route to victory, side-by-side racing at the front of the field proved plentiful, with each of the drivers in the top five taking turns at the front. Goodyear seemed to get the tire situation under control after fielding rocks at Bristol a week ago, with the rubber proving to wear on the abrasive Atlanta service. Drivers throughout the field were seen visibly wrestling with loose race cars throughout the 300 miles.
The Nationwide Series points race was dramatically impacted by an incident on lap 170, when Justin Allgaier nudged teammate Reed Sorenson exiting turn 2, triggering a wreck that all but destroyed the No. 32 machine. The late-race yellow allowed for Elliott Sadler‘s No. 2 team to make adjustments that turned a subpar car into a top-10 machine. As a result, Sadler maintained second in the points, and Sorenson dropped to 40 markers behind leader Stenhouse with only eight races left in the season.
On an evening that saw Sadler struggle to stay in the top 10 and Sorenson wrecked, Stenhouse finally served championship notice after a lackluster showing at Bristol. A fixture in the top five all night, Stenhouse even went as far as to trade paint with teammate and eventual winner Edwards battling for the lead in the middle sections of the race. Even a disastrous pit stop mid-race that lost the No. 6 car seven positions on pit road proved easy to overcome, as Stenhouse delivered a third-place finish that both carried the flag for the Nationwide regulars and even put him ahead of a surging Kahne in the later runs. With five more intermediate ovals left on the schedule for the remainder of the NNS season, performances like Saturday make clear it’s Stenhouse’s title to lose.
That being said, Sadler‘s team turned what could have been an ugly Saturday into a minimal loss, utilizing their chances at late-race adjustments to get the No. 2 car from the back of the lead lap into the top 10 when the checkered flag flew. Sadler’s team still has a significant goose-egg in the win column thus far into 2011, but they refuse to disappear in the rear view mirror of the No. 6 team. That being said though, this team can’t endure many more Atlantas. Recovering from poor starts to score top 10s is good for maintaining standing, but with the amount of time left in the season that practice isn’t going to be enough for the No. 2 much longer.
Jeremy Clements and the No. 51 team (last year No. 04) made a name for themselves stealing top-20 finishes on the longer ovals on a shoestring budget and part-time schedule, results that have been hard to come by in 2011 with the move to the CoT and a full schedule. But one well-timed lucky dog proved enough for Clements to turn in his most convincing performance of 2011, overcoming a green-flag penalty for lining up incorrectly on the start to finish 14th, only his second top 15 of the 2011 season and first on an intermediate oval since Gateway last October. One can only hope that this independent bunch is finally turning the corner on the CoT that has given them a great deal of trouble in their first full-time campaign.
Jason Leffler turned in a ninth-place run while driving a ride that was not his primary car, but still carried the colors of race sponsor Great Clips.
Ryan Truex didn’t have a flashy run in his debut with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20, but improved in the race’s second half from coming close to falling out of the top 20 to finish 11th. Such results aren’t going to land Truex a ride and will have to improve in his later runs with the No. 20 (he’s scheduled for a handful more), but if nothing else the youngster demonstrated adaptability in his debut at AMS.
Both Trevor Bayne and Sorenson were collected on lap 170 in a hard crash in turn 2, after Allgaier got into the rear of Sorenson’s No. 32 car and sent him hurtling up the track into Bayne’s machine. For both, it was the continuation of cold stretches neither driver needed; Bayne has finished outside the top 10 in nine of the last 11 races, Sorenson five in a row. What’s more, Bayne was deprived of results on a day that both saw the Roush camp the class of the field and the No. 16 team debuting a new race car. As for Sorenson, the wreck came at the hands of a teammate at Turner Motorsports and dropped the No. 32 team to 40 markers back in the battle for the championship. In short, any chance they had of top-10ing their way to the title are out the window. It’s hard to blame Sorenson for wanting to “find Allgaier” after the race was over… for the title chase may well have become a two-horse battle after that wreck.
And as for Allgaier, well, there were more questions than answers to be had. Allgaier rebounded from the accident to finish sixth, his best finish since Nashville. There was no doubting that he made contact with the No. 32 car on lap 170 and triggered the incident that sent Sorenson and Turner Motorsports’ lead title contender into the fence. There is no getting around the fact that this was an incident between teammates. From there it gets murky. Was the incident easily avoidable? Yes, Allgaier could have gotten out of the gas and stayed off Sorenson. And yes, Allgaier openly acknowledged he could understand why Sorenson was so upset with him post-race. But listen carefully. Allgaier never explicitly apologized, never came out and said he was wrong. Just how frustrated has Allgaier been with both his struggles and the fact that his 2011 title pursuit has all but unraveled since winning at Chicago? And perhaps the larger question, was there any need for him to apologize or admit wrongdoing because he was a teammate? Like it or not, there were 25 laps to go and Sorenson was in his way. Why should any driver have to apologize for moving that driver out of the way, even if they are a teammate?
Seemed that he who found trouble at Atlanta couldn’t stay out of it. At least that was the case for both Michael Annett and Eric McClure, who each were involved in two separate, unassisted spins over the course of Saturday night. McClure was reportedly ill behind the wheel of the No. 14, as Chase Miller would take the wheel of the car before night’s end after start-and-parking his No. 46 car six laps into the event. Both drivers finished four or more laps off the pace in 20th and 28th, respectively.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Matt Carter. after a season of start-and-parking whatever ride has been available, Carter got his first shot at racing the distance in a Nationwide Series event since his ill-fated final race with Specialty Racing in Charlotte back in the fall of 2009, and made the most of it. Carter came home in 17th driving the No. 39 for Go Green Racing, the team’s best result on a 1.5-mile oval all year and their best finish since Road America back in June. For a driver that’s had extremely limited seat time in recent years to turn in that kind of a performance on the high speed Atlanta Motor Speedway on a night that handling was at a premium was nothing short of impressive.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $66,316 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored five of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied seven of the 43 positions in Saturday’s field, and took home $171,353 in purse money.
328 of 1,109 starting positions occupied (29.6%)
22 of 26 trophies collected (84.6%)
The Final Word
- There’s really something to be said about the racing at Atlanta. An abrasive surface that eats tires for breakfast. True comers-and-goers. And there’s something to be said for having lapped traffic running at significantly slower pace than the leaders. That makes a huge deal with regard to racing. Just look at the number of picks the leaders set through each other throughout 300 miles. Intermediate racing can be good, and Saturday night proved just that.
- That crowd was something else. And it begs the question that it seems only sponsor Great Clips has figured out… who cares if tickets have to be given away to get people in the seats? An empty seat makes no money, whereas an extra 25,000 in the door are going to buy food, souvenirs, spend money and talk about what they see. Plus, it makes a difference to see an entertaining race play out in front of full grandstands. Seeing a legitimate 60,000 in the stands was refreshing to put it lightly.
- Truex’s first race in months revealed a lot about the current Nationwide Series. For one, seat time is mega-important. Finishing 11th in a JGR entry is not going to get the job done. Truex is a better driver than that, but he’s not had the seat time to keep up. Staying in the car for more than a handful of races is a necessity these days. Now, the other point to be had… Joey Logano‘s suddenly out of the seat for a lot of companion races. Just how open is that No. 20 seat?