In the battle of Gibbs teammates, it was an unlikely victor on Saturday, with Joey Logano snatching victory from Kyle Busch heading down the frontstretch on the final lap of the second green-white-checkered attempt at Talladega. Busch finished second by less than a car length, with the tandem of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Cole Whitt finishing third and fourth after proving unable to mount a serious challenge to the Nos. 18/54 tandem coming to the checkers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 5.
Rule changes made to the Nationwide Series race cars that closely mimicked those done to the Cup cars for Speedweeks largely returned pack racing to the series after the season opener at Daytona was largely a tandem affair, and the product paid off. Saturday’s was an entertaining race, with a healthy mix of Nationwide regulars mixing it up at the front with a strong Cup contingent. The end of the event was marred by a frightening crash during the first GWC attempt on the backstretch; while a multi-car wreck, Eric McClure hit head-on into the interior retaining wall at nearly full speed. McClure had to be cut from his race car and was removed on a backboard before being airlifted to the hospital. Team PR has confirmed that McClure is conscious and alert following the wreck.
Elliott Sadler suffered through a damaged front end and finished 10th, losing the points lead to Stenhouse after Saturday’s event. Stenhouse leads the 2012 standings by five markers over Sadler and 35 over third place Austin Dillon, who faded to 17th in the final running order after being involved in the late “big one.”
What more needs to be said about Stenhouse? The No. 6 driver and his Ford machine were very quiet after the manufacturer showed such strength in the previous plate race weekend at Daytona, but emerged when it counted. Stenhouse ran his own race and stayed out of trouble even without a teammate, even passing Cole Whitt in the final run to the checkers to finish third and seize the points lead. As for Whitt, the other part of the highest-finishing tandem of NNS regulars, to be able to carry the flag for JR Motorsports even with the team’s namesake in the field and Danica Patrick actually being a contender is a nice feather in the cap for the driver of the No. 88. It’s a shame these two couldn’t run down Busch and Logano at the end.
James Buescher is a Truck Series regular but fast becoming a restrictor plate ringer at the Nationwide level for Turner Motorsports, following up his improbable win at Daytona with a seventh-place effort in the No. 30 that was tops for the organization. Teammate Justin Allgaier finished directly behind in eighth. The way this season has started, it’s a matter of when, not if, Buescher becomes a Nationwide regular.
Kenny Wallace made his return to RAB Racing count, delivering a ninth-place finish that was the team’s first top 10 since Wallace finished seventh at Fontana. Every top 10 it goes without saying is a solid result for a Nationwide Series regular, but also means more owner points cushion for RAB as they begin relying on driver-by-committee and Travis Pastrana to stay afloat without a full-time backer.
It wasn’t all good for the Wallaces though; Mike Wallace ended up with a wrecked No. 01 car that all started with contact from his brother Kenny. With the pack getting out of shape entering turn 4 on lap 114, Kenny’s No. 99 came down the track and into the rear of the No. 01, sending Mike spinning into the fence, all the while collecting JD Motorsports teammate Danny Efland and the No. 4 for good measure. The wreck undid a lot of good work done by the two Wallace brothers, leaving Mike with a 19th place finish and a lot of damage, unable to challenge for the win. Efland finished 31st.
Timmy Hill’s car ended up mangled by race’s end, though he wasn’t behind the wheel for all of it. Hill received damage early in the event when his right front got torn up in the melee of a lap 29 wreck involving Kurt Busch and Brian Scott. Already limping around, Hill had to get of his car in the second half of the event after battling with the flu all weekend. Blake Koch ended up turning the final laps in the No. 41, bringing it home 22nd.
Jeremy Clements avoided every wreck under the sun over the course of Saturday’s race, but continuous mechanical issues derailed any chance of stealing a top 15 for the No. 51; Clements finished nine laps off the pace in 29th.
Clements was fortunate enough to bring a car home in one piece; Morgan Shepherd was not. Caught up in the same Busch/Scott wreck that collected Hill, Shepherd received heavy damage to both sides of his No. 89 machine after playing pinball for much of the aftermath. Shepherd’s car stable is not deep; one can only hope he’s got another machine ready to make the trip to Darlington. This weekend will say a lot for the operation… check the running order to see if Shepherd is forced to park it early.
Jason Bowles also was in that early-race wreck as his hard-luck debut season in the Nationwide ranks continued; Bowles finished 34th.
Tri-Star Motorsports was primed to capitalize on all of the attrition of Saturday’s event, but saw a potentially huge weekend go up in smoke in the last 20 laps. After a second consecutive strong showing in a plate race, Mike Bliss saw his chance at a win disappear after getting dumped by Elliott Sadler entering turn 3 on lap 109. Then came the “big one” on lap 116. Eric McClure and Tayler Malsam both had their race cars completely destroyed in the accident, with McClure as previously discussed being transported to Birmingham for further treatment and evaluation. It was a hugely costly weekend for the organization, but it could have been far worse given the gravity of that lap 116 incident.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Erik Darnell How long has it been since Erik Darnell finished in the top 15 in a NASCAR event? Try the fall of 2010 at Texas… one of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. On Saturday, Darnell capitalized on being the one driver in the Motorsports Group’s fleet of four cars actually running full races, avoiding the wrecks to score a 14th place finish, all the while carrying rare sponsorship from Strutmasters.com for the operation. An accomplished Truck Series racer that could be argued to have gotten the short stick during his time at Roush, Saturday was a breath of fresh air for both he and an organization that’s fallen a long way in recent years.
Start-and-parkers occupied six of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $86,620 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored four of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied eight of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $197,288 in purse money.
102 of 344 starting positions occupied (29.7%)
3 of 8 trophies collected (37.5%)
*The Final Word*
• Danica Patrick was admonished by NASCAR after wrecking Sam Hornish Jr. on the cool-down lap, but the sanctioning body will reportedly not be penalizing their starlet, citing a lack of past history and that the incident did not go to the level of, say, Kyle Busch wrecking Ron Hornaday at Texas. To be fair, there is good precedent for this; Kyle Busch didn’t get any sort of penalty when he wrecked Anthony Lazzaro at Watkins Glen back in 2005. It’s hardly surprising… this sanctioning body has a thing for letting the entitled behavior of petulant brats go.
• Eric McClure’s wreck could have significantly been worse had it only happened 100 yards or so further down the track, where both a gate and a concrete wall with no SAFER barrier runs along the interior of the backstretch. The scariest part of McClure’s wreck was just how sharp of a turn the car was able to make without slowing at all. Here’s hoping Talladega takes a good hard look at this one and extends the SAFER barriers on that back wall for its entire length.
• Just like with the Cup cars, this plate package being run brought back the pack, and the quality of racing improved for it. Sadly, this also means that plate racing is among the finest quality on-track products the Nationwide Series has produced in 2012.
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