Just one week after 2011 championship runner-up Elliott Sadler sent a message with a return to victory lane at Phoenix, the defending title holder Ricky Stenhouse Jr. returned the favor. Holding off Mark Martin on the final two restarts of the afternoon, Stenhouse’s No. 6 proved to be the class of the field, and the driver delivered with his third career Nationwide Series win. Martin, polesitter Sadler, Trevor Bayne and Brendan Gaughan rounded out the top 5.
Weathering asphalt and bumps growing more pronounced in the lower groove of turns 1 and 2 made the high line an active route around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, which when combined with a softer tire allowed for side-by-side racing and passing throughout much of the field. Still, even with the additional grip, the high speeds on the reconfigured high banks still proved treacherous, with a number of entries proving able to loosen cars significantly by taking air off the spoilers.
On the heels of a pole and top 5 run, Sadler leaves Vegas as the points leader, with Austin Dillon and Stenhouse second and third in points, 15 and 17 markers back respectively. Most notable in the top is Rick Ware Racing driver Blake Koch, who moved back into the mix on the strength of an 18th place finish.
The 2011 title contenders didn’t seem to have enough fun last year, because both have come back for more. *Elliott Sadler’s* red hot start to the season continued with a pole-winning run and another top 5 finish. Perhaps more notably, as early as it is, this is the latest in a Nationwide Series season Sadler has ever led the points. As for *Stenhouse*, the driver in the Roush Fenway Racing camp that’s getting the full season nod over last year’s Cinderella in Trevor Bayne, he’s not leaving any room for doubt that he deserves the opportunity. The No. 6 car was smooth as silk over 300 miles Saturday, never looking out of shape and making clean, aggressive passes throughout the field. The lessened Cup involvement in the Nationwide Series field is only going to help that victory count.
*Brendan Gaughan* made the most of a Nationwide Series start at his hometown track. Shaking off an ugly Cup weekend at Phoenix only six days earlier, Gaughan returned to the form that saw him win the 2003 Truck race at LVMS, using the high line to perfection and securing the top 5 he had been gunning for with an aggressive late-race pass of Cole Whitt. The result was Gaughan’s best since a third-place result at Road America back in 2010.
Speaking of *Whitt*, Saturday was a welcome sight after a disappointing Phoenix and a rough start to the race weekend. Friday saw Whitt make contact with the wall in practice. It wasn’t hard enough to damage the frame, but crew chief Tony Eury Sr. remarked that there was damage to the steering, and that front end repairs were not able to make the car as good as it was. Even with the less-than-stellar front end though, Whitt still ran as high as third and brought the No. 88 home sixth, a career-best for the former Truck Series regular on a non-plate oval. Whitt currently sits fifth in points three races into his debut NNS season.
*Jason Bowles* came out of nowhere to score a top 10 qualifying effort, the first time MacDonald Motorsports’ No. 81 entry has pulled that off since Michael McDowell qualified fifth at Road America back in 2010. Unfortunately, the team didn’t run anywhere near that, finishing 12 laps off the pace in the 27th position by race’s end.
*Benny Gordon* managed to find the last inch of wall in Las Vegas that doesn’t have SAFER barrier on it…the pit wall. Hitting pit road at high speeds to avoid Kyle Fowler’s lap 11 spin in turn 4, Gordon himself ended up spinning directly into the pit wall, causing damage to the right front of his No. 24. Gordon and team were able to stay on track, but they ended up completing only 146 circuits by race’s end. After this 30th place result, the short track of Bristol has got to be a welcome upcoming sight for the former USAR star.
*Joey Gase* was the one driver to fall victim to tire failure Saturday at LVMS, but it struck early and hard. Lap 42 saw the No. 39 car pop the right front going into turn 1, slamming the fence and ruining any chance to return to the track. A rookie campaign as a full-time Nationwide Series regular has proven to be tough sledding so far for the 19-year-old late model racer, as he’s yet to crack the top 25 thus far this season.
Saturday appeared shaped up to be *Brian Scott’s* coming out party with Joe Gibbs Racing. With the No. 20 off the grid and Mark Martin as his teammate, Scott and the No. 11 car qualified fourth (his best time trial effort since scoring the pole at Chicago last fall), with team primed to challenge for the win. Instead, the story of 2011 resurfaced; Scott had plenty of speed, but on lap 96 the No. 11 got loose in turn 4, leading Scott to over-correct directly into the fence. The driver walked away from the hardest crash of the afternoon, the only highlight of a 34th place finish. Bristol is already going to be a pivotal week for the No. 11 squad given how much they had built up the Vegas weekend as a shot to win…another bad race next weekend, and their confidence as a whole is going to be severely challenged.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Bliss* Take away the wreck that mangled his top-5 Daytona car, and Bliss would be off to a rip-roaring start to the 2012 season. Nonetheless, Bliss did well to carry the flag for Tri-Star Motorsports at Las Vegas, finishing 15th and on the lead lap despite being nearly involved in a number of incidents (Bliss was in close proximity to Fowler’s spin as well as Jennifer Jo Cobb’s on lap 69). For Bliss, the result was his first top 15 finish since Dover last fall.
*Start-and-parkers* occupied 6 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $86,751 in purse money.
*Cup regulars* scored 2 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 5 of the 43 starting positions, and took home $130,413 in purse money.
36 of 129 starting positions occupied (27.9%)
$1,035,829 dollars won
0 of 3 trophies collected (0%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
With 18 of the 43 cars in the field either start-and-park entries, driven by Cup drivers or involved in incidents, 25 Nationwide Series regulars were in the field to be covered over the course of the nearly three hour telecast. Of those 25, *James Buescher*, *Michael Annett*, *Mike Wallace*, *Eric McClure*, *Blake Koch*, *Erik Darnell*, *Tim Schendel*, *Derrike Cope*, *Robert Richardson* and *Darryl Harr* were not mentioned in any capacity over the course of the race. In addition, *Johanna Long* and *Morgan Shepherd* were only mentioned in passing or as lapped traffic. In all, that equals 12 of 25, or 48%, of the eligible field that received no TV coverage over 300 miles.
*The Final Word*
• Kyle Fowler was on the entry list for the entire week as driver of the No. 08 car. Yet when it came time to do the starting lineup for Saturday’s race, ESPN did not have a picture of the driver ready for use in their graphics. Either the network truly is lazy in doing its prep work for these races or there’s an intern out there that needs to be canned.
• Did anyone else find it comical how the broadcast booth was trying to build the up the possibility that Mark Martin would harbor a grudge against Ricky Stenhouse Jr. later in the race…because Stenhouse had the nerve to make a clean pass? Battling in the top 5, the No. 6 car got a run on the veteran, took the air off his spoiler, and made a textbook pass. In response to that, the broadcast crew on numerous occasions throughout the rest of the afternoon pondered whether Martin was going to remember. Come on already…there wasn’t enough going out there to ponder about? Why not talk about the 12 regulars in the field that weren’t mentioned once? And on that same vein, why was Brad Keselowski heard on the radio saying Stenhouse’s pass was not cool? It was clean already.
• On the same line of making stupid comments, Elliott Sadler let teammate Austin Dillon have it on the radio regarding the conduct of teammates racing…because Dillon refused to roll over and give Sadler a spot on the frontstretch. Apparently the entitlement that has been seemingly swept over the Cup field for years is a trait that dies hard in a driver.
• Trevor Bayne is not currently slated to race the Nationwide event at Bristol due to lack of sponsorship. Look, the economy sucks right now, and even though the Nationwide Series in 2012 is seeing regulars do better than they have in years, the cost of running Nationwide programs as one would a Cup team is still high, and will be as long as the RCRs, JGRs and Roush Fenways of the world operate as they have for the last decade. There are a lot of teams out there making race efforts happen for a lot less money than RFR right now…which begs the question; why can’t the No. 60 team keep going on a shoestring? Yes, that sacrifices the dominance that the team is used to displaying, but it would keep Bayne on the track. There are unsponsored teams out there that have made NNS racing work. That’s not keeping Bayne off the track. Refusing to adapt and do what is necessary to race is. It’s gonna be a real shame not to see Trevor among the field next weekend.
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