NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Breakdown: Drive4COPD 300 Redemption for Smith

 

Young Dylan Kwasniewski had the pole. Kyle Busch had the best-laid plans. Brad Keselowski had the lead, the best car on the outside line and the most momentum heading into the white-flag lap.

But none of them could hold off Regan Smith. The JR Motorsports driver, who lead 35 laps total, pulled the perfect move on the final one, hanging tough on the outside line Keselowski used to briefly take control of the race. Pushing his front fender forward at the start/finish line, the razor-thin 0.013-second margin of victory earned Smith his first career win at one of the sport’s most legendary tracks. It’s the seventh-closest finish on record in Nationwide Series history.

Regan Smith soaked up the Gatorade after winning the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
Regan Smith soaked up the Gatorade after winning the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona.

Regan Smith soaked up the Gatorade after winning the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona.

Saturday was also a solid ending to a race run much cleaner than last year’s edition, one that included a final-lap disaster in which debris sprinkled into the stands and sent more than a dozen fans to the hospital. This time around, there were only five cautions — none for incidents involving more than three cars — and then a six-car melee after the checkered flag flew. That’s relatively tame for Daytona, during which Nationwide Series chassis often go to get sold as scrap metal for bargain prices.

Keselowski settled for second and was followed to the line by Trevor Bayne. It was Bayne’s first top-5 finish at Daytona in any series since winning the 2011 Daytona 500. Teammates Kyle Busch and Elliott Sadler, who were planning to team up until track position got in the way, rounded out the top-5 finishers. At one time, it looked like Busch would run away with things with 44 laps led, but the veteran waited too long to get going and underestimated the viability of the outside lane, the place drafting runs went to die for the first 100 laps of the race.

NASCAR’s “no pushing” rule, in effect for the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, wound up claiming one victim, James Buescher, for a pass-through penalty that ultimately had little effect on his 16th-place result — though he drove back up into contention with some lucky caution flags. Still, drivers ran conservatively at times, unsure where the line would be drawn on NASCAR penalties — which resulted in a stagnant draft and single-file competition for the majority of the race. Track position complaints were constant on the radio; drivers felt “stuck” with drafted lanes that seemed more like stopped traffic in Manhattan rather than opportunities to make moves on their competition.

Here’s what else you can take away from Saturday’s Nationwide season opener.

The Good

Regan Smith left Daytona one year ago feeling devastated. In position for the win off Turn 4 before getting turned, he felt at least partly responsible for fans being injured in the stands by the giant wreck that ensued. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Smith both admitted, during post-race interviews Saturday, that it took months for the team to shake those emotions. Well, what a difference a year makes. This time, the team is leaving Daytona on the highest of highs after winning the seventh-closest Nationwide race in history.

Elliott Sadler was the good teammate Saturday, waiting patiently on the radio for where and when Kyle Busch would make moves. But the full-time Nationwide driver, still seeking his first career title, knew he could reap some rewards. With a fifth-place finish to start the year, he keeps from losing the points title contenders so often dread at the plate tracks. “The car’s in one piece and we can take it to Talladega now,” he said. “A lot of effort came into coming down here to Daytona and giving ourselves a shot to win.” Sadler might have come in second, following Busch to the line, but the duo simply waited too long, stayed in line and watched cars to the outside just fly by.

Hitting the reset button on a career seldom works out for a race driver, but that is exactly what Brendan Gaughan is attempting. Gaughan made it to the Cup Series in 2004, then ran a full season but fell victim to the sponsorship woes that put so many careers in flux. He’s spent the past decade trying to rebuild, now back up to a full-time schedule in Nationwide with the goal of a series title on his mind. A sixth-place finish and a position of fourth in points coming out of Daytona is a great start to achieving said goal.

The Bad

Eric McClure is scratching his head over what happened after one of the more disappointing Speedweeks of his career.
Eric McClure is scratching his head over what happened after one of the more disappointing Speedweeks of his career.

Eric McClure is scratching his head over what happened after one of the more disappointing Speedweeks of his career.

Harrison Rhodes was living every racer’s dream of running Daytona. But as he came to the tri-oval on lap 8, his engine blew and caused a quick spin down the frontstretch. The resulting DNF left Rhodes 39th, losing a chance to gain much-needed experience on larger tracks. At age 20, Rhodes is sharing the ride this season, meaning every race he runs has to count. Instead, the mechanical failure for SR2 Motorsports served as a bit of a double whammy; teammate Jason White, spinning to avoid the melee, wound up losing laps and finished 31st.

Eric McClure started off his weekend by missing the Daytona 500 (likely his final attempt) after a flat tire in Thursday’s Duels. Saturday, the Nationwide Series full-timer was caught up in the last two incidents of the day and ended up officially out of the race on lap 115 (35th). Even worse, the No. 14 car, normally in contention just at restrictor plate races, was never a real factor before that, dropping to the back of the lead draft and then a lap down after starting a respectable 13th.

The Ugly

There are some teams who have to do what they have to do to make it to the next race. The No. 91 is one of those teams. Jeff Green is a former series champion who can make the race on a past champion’s provisional, so they have him in the car to start the race. Sadly, once the green flag waves, it doesn’t take long for the dreaded “vibration” to show up and end the team’s day. Saturday was no exception, with Green turning a total of three laps before parking his car. The true shame is that Supportmilitary.org was on the quarterpanels but had almost no chance of exposure. TriStar Motorsports is a big supporter of the Nationwide Series and are trying to make it on a very tight budget, so you can’t blame the organization for grabbing the $40,910 that last place affords. It is just a shame to see a proud series champion reduced to such shenanigans in recent years.

Joe Nemechek took the checkered flag and was pleased with a 12th-place finish after a long day of racing. Unfortunately, that pleasure was short-lived. Right after the checkers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who admitted he wasn’t paying much attention, ran into the back of Kyle Larson, starting a post-race wreck involving several cars. Nemechek got the worst of it, his No. 87 all but totaled two days after missing the big race, Sunday’s Daytona 500. He says the car needs a front clip and a rear clip, which is two-thirds of the chassis of a race car. Earnhardt offered to put a body on Nemechek’s car, which helps but is only part of the expense the owner/operator is going to have to endure.

Underdog Of The Race: Ryan Sieg. The folks at RSS Racing aren’t going to be confused with Hendrick Motorsports anytime soon, but Ryan Sieg got it done in the No. 39. Sieg started the race in 29th, then worked his way quickly toward the low teens before being shuffled back, pulling an amazing spin-and-save (with no damage) in the process. He then ran in the 20s until picking the right line late, surging towards the front and heading home with a ninth-place result.

Here’s the bad news: Sieg’s also got a damaged race car after being involved in that post-checkered flag melee with Earnhardt, Jr. But for a small team running a limited schedule, its Pull-A-Part sponsored car made a name for itself and, at the very least, got some extra money for Sieg’s full-time Camping World Truck Series effort.

The Double-Duty And Start-And-Park Effect

8 of 40 starters (20%) ran both Saturday’s event and Sunday’s Daytona 500.

4 of Saturday’s top-10 finishers (40%) are not running for the season championship. Best Finish: 2nd (Brad Keselowski)

1 of 40 cars chose to start-and-park, collecting $40,910 in purse money. (Jeff Green)

The Final Word

  • You can blame Earnhardt for that post-race melee destroying tens of thousands of dollars in good equipment. But give the driver this much credit: he’s offering to pay for the damage. Typically, these Cup guys steal wins, wreck cars and then just walk away, leaving the Nationwide regulars to pick up the scraps. Kudos to Junior for not hitting “ignore” and being proactive.
  • Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler: Remember that bad blood between them, last year from New Hampshire? Guess what; it’s still there. Guess what part two: they’re your two top contenders for this year’s Nationwide Series title. I think there might be fewer drivers fighting for it this year, but the championship contest could be much more contentious than the Sam Hornish, Jr.-Austin Dillon battle from 2013.
  • As I said in my other column, investigating NASCAR’s “no push” rule, quality racing always takes a hit when you put out a restraining order on contact. Drivers were afraid to draft aggressively yesterday for fear of being penalized and it showed in an on-track product that had several boring moments until late.
  • Trevor Bayne seems like a guy who needs confidence. Keep an eye on him after that third-place finish; he just found a whole bunch. Dylan Kwasniewski seems like the opposite; if anything, he’s got too much confidence. But a top-10 finish after winning the pole should get him setting some lofty goals.

Connect with Tom!
6502
Contact Tom Bowles

 

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch