Oh, what a difference a week can make.
Following a late-race (and hotly-debated) black flag while leading at last weekend’s Indiana 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that relegated the championship points leader to 15th and a mere one-point standings lead over Austin Dillon, Elliott Sadler took to Iowa Speedway Saturday, August 4, with a vengeance. After starting from the pole, Sadler took the race lead from Justin Allgaier late in the going, leading 60 laps en route to his third win of the 2012 season.
“They are not taking the championship from us!” cried Sadler after crossing the line by about a second over Allgaier. He should have plenty to cheer about — following his race win and a disappointing showing from Dillon, the Richard Childress Racing driver gave himself some much-needed breathing room in the points standings, increasing his lead to 18.
Following Allgaier in third was Sam Hornish Jr., who took home the Nationwide Dash for Cash’s $100,000 prize, narrowly edging Michael Annett, who finished fourth. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top-5 finishers.
Further back, sixth through 10th was chiefly an exercise in either young talent or talented drivers sans a full-time ride in the series — Michael McDowell, Darrell Wallace Jr., Jason Leffler, Brett Moffitt and Ryan Blaney, in that order.
Wallace, making his second start in the series, led early after starting outside Sadler on the front row, pacing the field for the first 37 laps. Dillon and Allgaier largely held the lead afterward, before Sadler’s final charge to the front. The race saw just three cautions — one a competition caution to check Goodyear’s new right side tire at lap 50, one for a lap 90 John Blankenship spin and a final caution for debris.
Nationwide’s Dash for Cash program ended Saturday night with Sam Hornish Jr. winning $100,000 following a third-place finish. Sure, Hornish is technically a bit of a Cup regular now, with his taking over AJ Allmendinger’s No. 22 ride in that series, but it’s still good to see the Ohioan get rewarded for a good effort. Plus, his result won race fan Tammy Aller an additional $100,000. If you want a feel-good story, check out her emotion during Hornish’s post-race interview. The race for the cash was certainly interesting all night, too. Annett and Stenhouse finished right behind Hornish, while Dillon was in the hunt before his late-race woes.
These stand-alone events always tend to showcase up-and-coming talent, but the Nationwide Series seems to be brimming with promising young guns in 2012. Saturday night, a handful of buzzed-about hopefuls showed just why they’ve been given so much hype as well as decent rides. It started with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Darrell Wallace Jr. and his second-place starting spot. Wallace cruised to the front on the very first lap, held the point for 37 laps, and settled for seventh. Also in the mix for top-10 finishes all night? Brett Moffitt and Ryan Blaney, the former in his first Nationwide start ever and the latter in his maiden event for Penske Racing. Both finished in the top 10 — ninth and 10th, respectively.
Jason Leffler was unceremoniously booted from his Turner Motorsports ride at the end of last season and found himself back in the Camping World Truck Series for a partial schedule with Kyle Busch Motorsports (which, sadly, has not gone according to plan, with little to cheer about). Did anyone expect Leffler to return to Nationwide at all this season, let alone with Turner? He did, and was in contention for a good showing all night, settling for an eighth. Good to see him back.
He started third, led 53 laps and seemed, along with teammate Sadler, to be among the teams to beat Saturday night. So what happened to Austin Dillon? On lap 139, the driver reported a vibration and pitted early. Oops. Although he was later given a chance to get his lap back during the race’s final caution, crew chief Danny Stockman opted to not take the wave-around, instead getting fresh tires and restarting as the first car one lap down. But then the race went green the rest of the way, leaving Dillon a disappointing 15th overall. Given A) the way Dillon ran before then, and B) how his closest competitor in the points (Sadler) fared the No. 3 bunch can’t be too pleased.
Another driver with late problems putting him off the lead lap? Kurt Busch, who ran up inside the top 10 for much of the day and was in third when something began to feel amiss with his No. 54 entry. With six laps to go, his right front tire gave out, and the race’s most prominent Cup ringer came home 17th.
Five drivers made their Nationwide debuts at the season’s second Iowa race. Brett Moffitt was already mentioned as scoring a commendable eighth-place finish, but what about the other four? Well… eh. Next in line was John Blankenship, who spun early and finished five laps down in 23rd. The only time you heard from Justin Jennings and Scott Saunders was when they were being lapped for the millionth time, finishing 26th and 28th, respectively. And Las Vegas standout Dusty Davis? A start-and-park from the Rick Ware Racing stable, ending up 40th. Make no mistake — these guys largely stayed out of trouble, didn’t do anything stupid and are driving for less-than-funded teams. But against the backdrop of the aforementioned excellent rookies, it’s tough to say too many good things here.
Speaking of former promising prospects, Matt DiBenedetto made another appearance in the series parking for The Motorsports Group (you know, the nondescript squad of Nos. 42, 46 and 47 that would bring up the rear every week if it weren’t for Jeff Green). During the ESPN qualifying broadcast, he was shown explaining the ARCA-esque way his name was written above the driver door. No, really. I mean written. On some tape.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Johanna Long. As usual, the broadcast booth was abuzz over how “OMG SO GOOD” Danica Patrick was doing. Yeah, but how about some more shoutouts for fellow female Long, who’s racing on a fraction of the budget Patrick possesses and has probably seen these tracks just as many times, if not less. Her 13th-place effort was the second best for her career (tops: 12th at Daytona in July), and gives her an average finish in 2012 of 21.5 in 14 races. Danica? Try 20.0 — admittedly better, but consider that Long’s racing for ML Motorsports, which just isn’t a powerhouse squad. And she was up there all race long. Someone get her a chance in better equipment — pronto.
Start-and-parkers occupied nine of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $107,264 in purse money.
Cup regulars occupied three of the 43 starting positions, garnering $82,411 in purse money.
239 of 860 starting positions occupied (27.8%)
$189,675 dollars won
10 of 20 trophies collected (50%)
The Final Word
As usual, the Nationwide regulars and young guns put on a better show than when the Cup guys run wild during companion events. I get that money’s a big factor here, but sometimes I wonder if these sponsors that are hesitant to back supposedly unproven racers ever watch races like what we’ve seen at Iowa in 2012.
It was a great day for Richard Childress in general. Saturday night wasn’t his first trip to Victory Lane that day — not only did he score a win with Sadler in Iowa, but he also tasted victory in Pocono with Truck Series driver Joey Coulter, who picked up his first series win.
John Blankenship was basically sponsored by coal. As in, his hood just had the word ‘COAL’ plastered on it in huge letters. It’s certainly the least-subtle advertisement for a form of energy this year. Once Kenny Wallace returns to the series, are we going to see ‘CORN’ across his hood?
I kept getting unnecessarily confused seeing TriStar’s No. 10 out on the track after the first three laps before I would remind myself that it was the normal No. 44 team, the number of which was rented out to the aforementioned Blankenship and Tommy Baldwin Racing. The normal 10 team moved over to the No. 91, shades of MSRP’s old parkmobile. Just like old times.
Going back to my first point — standalone events. Great way to showcase up-and-coming talent, just as the series used to be, right? Many still hold on to the notion that the second-tier series is just that — a sort-of minor league circuit on which younger talent hones his or her talent. Well, not according to Brad Keselowski, who caught some flak for comments made about why he wasn’t racing at Iowa. “So someone else can be (in the car),” he first tweeted in response to such a query. User @markvphotos questioned him asking why the Cup regular wouldn’t “say how the Nationwide Series is for new, young, developing drivers and not ones who drive for fun.” Keselowski’s response? “Nope It’s not…” So, has the former Nationwide competitor lost sight of that which gave him his big break in the first place, or are his comments, for better or for worse, the unbridled truth these days?