Watkins Glen saw the return of Carl Edwards to the Nationwide Series after a 20-race hiatus that was designed so that Edwards could focus more on the Sprint Cup Series. Well, Edwards seemed to really miss spending his Saturday afternoons in the car; so, with support from Subway, Edwards returned to the No. 60 that had been parked due to lack of support since Las Vegas.
Despite almost no practice on Friday due to rain (he literally did the absolute minimum required in order to get a spot in the qualifying order), Edwards turned in the second fastest time in qualifying.
In the race itself, the Sprint Cup drivers absolutely dominated. Yes, Nationwide regular Sam Hornish, Jr. won the pole and led the first 11 laps. Other than Hornish, only two other regulars led at all in the event, and only due to pit strategy.
Brad Keselowski was the dominant force in much of the race, leading a race-high 44 laps. Edwards was very strong as well, but really didn’t have anything for the No. 22 early in the race. Kyle Busch might have, but he was too busy charging up through the field from the rear. Busch went from the very back of the pack to tenth in less than 15 laps. However, a shifter knob that broke in his hand shortly after halfway and knocked him out of contention.
When Cole Whitt littered the track with Schuyler County soil on Lap 69 and brought out the yellow, the whole complexion of the race changed. On the restart, Edwards made an “intentionally over-aggressive move” to the outside of Keselowski in Turn 1. The two drivers drag raced each other to the Esses before Edwards took the lead in Turn 2. From there, Keselowski made multiple attempts to repass to no avail as Edwards claimed his first win of 2012 in his first start.
Once again, *Sam Hornish, Jr.* had a great weekend in Watkins Glen. Hornish claimed the pole on Saturday morning for the race. This is interesting in that even though he comes from a quasi-road racing background, Hornish was never very good on road courses when he was racing in the IndyCar Series; he was more of oval specialist.
During the race, Hornish led 15 laps and kept himself in the hunt for the whole race before coming home in third. That performance moved him up to third in points, leapfrogging Austin Dillon (see below). Some writers have claimed that Hornish is auditioning to take over the No. 22 full-time in 2013. Hornish claims that he’s been auditioning every time he’s gotten in the car for the last four years, but his performances do appear to have improved quite a bit since he was tapped to take over for the suspended/fired AJ Allmendinger.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* has been touted as the most improved road racer in the Nationwide Series this season, and Saturday’s performance is a good reason why this is so. Stenhouse qualified in tenth and ran excellent to come home in fourth, a career-best on a road course. That finish, coupled with Elliott Sadler’s 12th-place finish, has closed the gap between the two drivers to 13 points going into Michigan.
Last year, Stenhouse was 15th at Watkins Glen. During his rookie year, he was put out of the car in favor of Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge driver Billy Johnson. We’ll see if Stenhouse can keep up his road racing momentum next weekend in Montreal, with Johnson as his teammate.
The attrition/parking on Saturday was pretty substantial, unfortunately. Some of the teams that parked were quite obvious (TriStar’s No. 10 for Jeff Green, the three Team Motorsports Group cars not driven by J.J. Yeley, RWR’s No. 15). Others, not so much. Also, a couple of the smaller operations had mechanical problems and two drivers (Danica Patrick and Matt Bell) dropped out due to crashes that did not draw full course cautions. In the end, 16 drivers failed to finish a race that ultimately was not all that destructive.
*Joey Logano* had a very strong car on Saturday and could have possibly challenged for the victory. However, Logano had contact with Edwards and spun in Turn 11 on Lap 56. Logano was angry with Edwards over this move and claimed that he would dump him if he got the chance. That chance never came.
A caution shortly after the spin gave Logano the chance to put on fresh tires. From there, Logano charged back up to fifth when the caution flew on Lap 70. However, right about that time, Logano’s engine dropped a valve, rendering him uncompetitive. The 22nd-place finish was not indicative of Logano’s actual performance.
*Austin Dillon* may not be all that skilled on road courses, but this weekend was just the pits for the rookie. First, Dillon qualified 30th, his worst qualifying performance of the season (yes, he started 42nd in Daytona last month, but that only because his pole-winning time was disallowed due to hose violation). In the race, Dillon was quite a bit better than 30th, but had all kinds of problems. First, he went straight at the Inner Loop on Lap 37 in order to avoid a spinning Kenny Habul along with Jason Bowles. However, Dillon forgot to come to a complete stop, as instructed during the Driver’s Meeting.
Just a lap later, Dillon was right behind Alex Kennedy when Kennedy lost a left front tire and pounded the wall hard. Dillon had to spin to avoid Kennedy. The car was undamaged, but it took a while for Dillon to re-crank the engine. He lost a lap while sitting there, then had to go to the rear of the field as a penalty for failing to stop at the Inner Loop.
After getting a Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap, Dillon ran into the back of Michael Annett while breaking for the Inner Loop. Half a lap later, the right front tire blew just past the pit entry, damaging the right front fender and bringing out the final yellow. Dillon was still able to finish 23rd–last car on the lead lap–but he was just glad to get out of Watkins Glen.
For *Danica Patrick*, the race ended before it got started. Under braking for the first turn of the event, Ryan Truex wheel-hopped and lost control. Truex then turned his car into the grass in what he considered to be a move designed to prevent himself from running into the back of his teammate and taking out half the field. Instead, Truex spun through the grass, then back across the inside lane. Patrick simply had nowhere to go and ran into the back of Truex’s Toyota.
Patrick was able to drive the car away, so no caution was thrown. However, the hit punctured Patrick’s radiator. The team tried to tape up the damage and sent Patrick back out, but within a lap, she reported no water pressure. Running the car without water more or less seized up the engine, forcing her out of the race after just two laps.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Wallace. On a day in which the runs were long enough that most drivers were dropping off the lead lap in droves (if not out of the race), Wallace had a steady run all day, keeping himself out of trouble to bring home the No. 01 Chevrolet in 18th. Also, the No. 01 was carrying backing from Tradebank, which normally has featured on the team’s No. 4.
Start-and-Parkers occupied five of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $48,785 in prize money.
Sprint Cup regulars occupied nine of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $164,658 in prize money
248 of 903 starting positions occupied (27.5%)
$5,063,867 won (it would be a little more, because Stephen Leicht and Josh Wise’s money won could technically be counted twice).
11 of 21 trophies won (52.4%)
The Final Word
Saturday’s Zippo 200 was all about the Sprint Cup regulars. They led 54 of the 82 laps and took five of the top-10 spots in the finishing order.
Carl Edwards’ return was the big story coming into the race, especially for ESPN, who anointed Edwards as their In-Race Reporter. At least for ESPN, everything worked out story-wise.
For the regulars in the series, Saturday was a day to simply try to get the best possible finish. Hornish and Stenhouse each had top-5 finishes, while Justin Allgaier and Brian Scott each earned quiet top-10’s.
RCR and JR Motorsports’ full-time drivers each hurt themselves to various degrees on Saturday. Sure, Sadler finished 12th, but Stenhouse outperformed and gained on him significantly. Austin Dillon’s weekend has been chronicled above. His day dropped him from second, 18 points out to fourth, 31 points out.
In Patrick’s case, her crash and DNF after only two laps dropped her right back out of the top-10 in points. Joe Nemechek, who broke and stalled out on track himself, actually moved into the top-10 in her place (this failure happened late enough that he finished 27th, the last car to retire from the event).
Cole Whitt’s day was quite adventurous. He was blocked from entering his pit stall under green by debutant Dexter Stacey and suffered from a terrible pit stop, then had to serve a penalty for running over an air hose that put him down a lap. After getting it back, he chunked his right front corner of the car while trying to pass Victor Gonzalez, Jr. and lost another lap getting the damage repaired. Whitt’s 24th-place finish was nowhere near up to his standards, especially after he got a top-10 at Road America in June.
Going into the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which based on past history promises to create another shake up, we’ve got a heck of a championship battle. However, since Montreal is a standalone event, Sprint Cup regulars are not likely to play as much as a role.
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