It’s hard to believe that Roush Fenway Racing entered the weekend without a win to their credit at the Chicagoland Speedway, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took care of that on Saturday. Running down Kyle Busch in the closing laps with a car that was unstoppable on the high side of the track, the defending Nationwide Series champion scored his fifth win of the 2012 season… and took the points lead back for his troubles. Busch, Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski, and Paul Menard rounded out the top 5.
While a mid-race adjustment that reportedly was the opposite of what the driver asked for ultimately got Stenhouse up front and to the checkers, the same could not be said for Elliott Sadler, who faded from first to eighth in the final 30 laps, including losing spots to each of his competitors in the top 4 in points. Audibly frustrated over the radio, Sadler now sits nine points outside of the lead with seven races to go in the 2012 season.
Despite posting top 10 results, both Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. also lost further ground in the points, 34 and 57 markers, respectively, out of first.
*Ricky Stenhouse Jr.* did enough to deserve a shout-out for winning a race on an intermediate oval despite a strong Cup presence in the field, but his performance was more notable in that the No. 6 car was not a race-winning machine early. It took both adjustments from atop the pit box, and Stenhouse exploring grooves on the race track, to help the No. 6 team find the groove that would ultimately carry them past Kyle Busch and to victory. Add in the mid-race pit road gaffe from which Stenhouse had to recover (he stalled his car out on pit road and lost seven spots doing it), and this was a championship-mettle performance. Considering that the driver has the double pressure of pursuing a second championship and finding Cup sponsorship for 2013 on his shoulders right now, Saturday was Ricky’s day.
*Austin Dillon* and team came up two spots short of the victory they were publicly gunning for this weekend, but the No. 3 still enjoyed what was arguably its strongest overall performance since Dillon scored his first career NNS win back in June at Kentucky. Dillon was a fixture in the top 5 all afternoon, and proved more consistent than teammates Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler over 300 miles. Though the team faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle should they wish to challenge for the NNS title this year, winning another race and establishing themselves as the early 2013 favorites is not out of the question.
*Michael Annett’s* eighth-place finish wasn’t his best of the 2012 season. But what was more notable was the driver’s perspective on his current home at Richard Petty Motorsports. With rumors swirling that the family-sponsored driver was a candidate for the No. 43 Cup ride in the same stable, the driver was quoted during the broadcast as stating he needed to win some races before he started talking about Cup full-time. While this is certainly common sense, it does well to listen to a fully funded development driver keeping perspective on where his talent currently stacks up.
*Brian Scott* rebounded from his worst career start (42nd) to score his first top 10 finish (10th) since Watkins Glen… Danica Patrick finished 12th a week after wrecking herself at Richmond, though she still sits outside the top 10 in points… Cole Whitt rebounded from a mid-race spin with a flat left rear tire to finish 14th… Johanna Long and her part-time ML Motorsports No. 70 team were highlighted as the In-Race Reporter by ESPN for the 300-miler at Chicago, earning the little team that could more exposure than they’ve seen in some time on a broadcast (Long finished 21st).
*Kenny Wallace* made one of his few rare Nationwide starts this weekend in RAB Racing’s No. 99 car, but one never would have known it the way the team ran… Wallace’s 20th place finish was his worst of the 2012 season without a wreck or mechanical failure being involved. Not the kind of race that’s going to find sponsor dollars to get the longtime veteran back to full-time racing in 2013.
*Dexter Stacey* was involved in a spin for the second consecutive race in the No. 39 car, bringing out the yellow for an unassisted twirl on lap 4. He finished 24th.
*Jeremy Clements* was the first driver not start-and-parking out of Saturday’s race, retiring after completing 68 laps with oil leaking from the No. 51. The DNF was the team’s first since an engine failure at Michigan back in June.
*Benny Gordon* finished 29th after having issues with an unspecified mechanical issue affecting his right front tire on lap 124; the failure overshadowed a 14th place qualifying effort that was by far the best of the former USAR standout’s 2012 season.
*Timmy Hill* was forced into Rick Ware Racing’s start-and-park No. 15 entry in favor of Juan Carlos Blum, who finished seven laps off the pace in 26th; Hill has DNF’d six of his last seven starts, the worst stretch of his Nationwide career.
Chicagoland Speedway hosted a Nationwide Series event back in 2006 that saw the top 16 positions occupied by Cup regulars at the finish. This weekend’s event was almost as ugly, with 13 of the 43 cars in the field parking by lap 30. Do the math: that’s 30.2% of the field unable or unwilling to run a full race. I wonder how long it’s going to be before NASCAR.com writes another feature detailing how the start-and-park practice is a “non-issue.”
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Alex Bowman.* The Cunningham Motorsports ARCA standout made his Nationwide Series debut this weekend in the same No. 30 ride that has hosted other ARCA prospects–including Mikey Kile and Steve Arpin–and did well to finish 17th. Bowman was a steady performer and showed composure on the track (Kyle Busch all but bump-drafted him down the frontstretch at one point with neither driver getting out of shape despite Chicagoland’s curved layout). His wasn’t the best development performance on the day, but it came spin-free. Teammate Brad Sweet couldn’t say that.
Start-and-parkers occupied 13 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $185,418 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 9 of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $336,419 in purse money.
307 of 1,118 starting positions occupied (27.5%)
$6,390,401 dollars won
13 of 26 trophies collected (50%)
*The Final Word*
• Alex Bowman’s Nationwide Series debut was also notable in that it featured a case of double-duty that hasn’t been seen yet; Bowman flew directly from Chicagoland to start the ARCA race at the Salem Speedway in Indiana that same night (he finished fifth in that event). A cool story, but one that also goes to show just how much of a role money plays in driver development these days; Bowman’s ARCA entry has gone unsponsored all season long, sans decals from St. Jude’s Research Hospital. A cool story and always good to see ARCA regulars taking on the big show, but there’s not too many drivers out there that could afford that deal.
• Also on the note of Bowman, he was one of a number of drivers and teams that got airtime Saturday that typically do not. Johanna Long ended up as the in-race reporter (albeit a bit underutilized) for Saturday’s event, while Mike Bliss and his No. 44 team got sponsor Bandit Chippers some TV time. It still wasn’t anywhere near being field-wide coverage, but take note broadcasters… is it really that hard to cover new blood over the course of two-three hours?
• For about the 577th time this season: why must spin-outs immediately trigger yellow flags? Brad Sweet’s brush with the wall brought out a yellow, but teammate Justin Allgaier’s didn’t. Dexter Stacey and Cole Whitt both brought out the caution without any real chance to get restarted and back up to speed. Fortunately, a combination of older asphalt and some real hard driving up front allowed this race to be settled by the drivers, but in a series where this isn’t often the case, the yellow flag has got to used with more restraint than was seen Saturday.