The Nationwide Series has long been a source of contention for NASCAR fans because of general dominance from Sprint Cup Series drivers, the series regulars struggling to rise above and grab their share of attention as they wallow in the shadow of their supposed superiors.
If you’re looking for a storyline that breaks the mold in that regard, don’t look toward Saturday’s Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250 at Michigan International Speedway as a beacon of hope; a Cup driver won again.
However, the eventual winner remains popular — if social media and certain Internet forums are to be believed — so don’t look at the race as a total lost cause, either.
Paul Menard emerged victorious Saturday afternoon (June 14) in Michigan, marking a rare win for the longtime NASCAR competitor. It was his second win in Nationwide Series competition, dating back to his first-ever victory way, way back at Milwaukee in 2006, when he was a series regular.
The 33-year-old’s gain was fellow Cup regular Joey Logano‘s loss. With five laps to go, the driver of the No. 22 was forced to pit due to a flat right rear tire, with Menard’s No. 33 inheriting the lead. He finished 16th and remains winless in the series this season over four starts; he’s never gone through a Nationwide season without a win.
Menard, making his first start of 2014, was joined on the podium by another part-timer in Sam Hornish, Jr. The occasional competitor for Joe Gibbs Racing finished second in the team’s No. 20, missing out on his second win of the year but ensuring that he hasn’t finished outside the top 5 in any of his three starts.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made a rare series appearance to finish third, the highest finisher for his JR Motorsports team. Kyle Busch settled for fourth, while Brian Scott earned the distinction of best-finishing series regular, coming home fifth.
Chase Elliott, Regan Smith, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher rounded out the top 10.
Paul Menard will likely never go down in NASCAR history as one of the sport’s greats, but it’s important to look at his career from start to now, particularly at its onset. He was looked at as an inorganic talent, one who had made his strides via his family’s money and not through raw driving ability. It’s a distinction that’s stuck with him to this day and is perhaps insurmountable, at least completely.
But while the influx of funding-flanked drivers hasn’t run dry, few of them can claim the same level of success — an Indianapolis 500 victory, and now two wins in the Nationwide Series. Those stats should, in theory, put Menard on a slightly higher level when it comes to 30 years down the road, when old, tried-and-true NASCAR fans are sitting back and remembering the drivers of yore.
It’s heartening to see a driver like Menard win because, even as a Cup regular, a Nationwide win was obviously a boon for him — you could see it in his face during the victory lane interview, a display of emotion from a driver known to be fairly stern most of the time.
Now to see if Nationwide success can translate this Sunday.
It hasn’t been the banner year for Dylan Kwasniewski some might have expected in his first full NASCAR season. After a strong start in Daytona that turned some heads, the Turner Scott Motorsports driver has rarely been part of the conversation, generally overshadowed by teammate Larson and struggling to break out with a team that definitely has the ability to do so, having housed Justin Allgaier in years past.
On Saturday, the woes continued. Kwasniewski got together with Trevor Bayne on lap 80, causing a caution and ruining both drivers’ days. After a promising start after rolling off the grid seventh, he ended up a mere 31st, his third finish outside the top 30 this season.
Something needs to turn around for him soon; since an eighth-place run in Daytona, Kwasniewski has failed to score a top 10 and sits 12th in points, behind even the underfunded JD Motorsports No. 01 of Landon Cassill. Instead of breaking out in a big way like many expected, he’s instead gaining a reputation for being prone to accidents and unable to capitalize on the equipment he’s been given — and that’s not going to fly for long.
The series looked healthy on paper coming into Michigan; after all, the entry list had ballooned to 43 drivers, which would have garnered a full field back in the day of 43-car fields. It was encouraging, especially considering the lower car counts in recent memory.
But a check of the race results suggests otherwise. Despite having 40 starters, only 26 finished the race, many of them choosing to start-and-park. In fact, seven drivers were out before lap 20, 40th-place finisher Tim Schendel not even turning a full lap.
As the disparity between the haves and the have-nots continues to do anything but dissipate, it’s important to keep an eye on the amount of start-and-park teams in a given week. If that many are unable to find full funding while costs go up, perhaps it’s time to give the series — and the sport as a whole — another hard look. The Sprint Cup Series seems to finally have shaken the habit, so maybe a solution exists for the lower series as well.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Ross Chastain made only his second series start Saturday and capitalized on a solid opportunity with Shigeaki Hattori’s fledgling Nationwide Series team, piloting the No. 80 to a 12th-place finish. It marks two races now during which the Florida native has kept his nose clean and turned in a good showing, and it’ll be sure to turn some heads like his runs with Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series did last year.
In his two starts, Chastain now has an average finish of 15th, having finished no lower than 18th. Looks like the transition from Trucks to Nationwide hasn’t been a harrowing experience.
Double Duty and Start and Park Effect
Nine drivers who competed in Saturday’s Aaron’s 312 will run the Sprint Cup race on Sunday.
Four of Saturday’s top-10 finishers are not running for Nationwide Series points.
Seven (maybe nine) of 40 cars chose to start and park.
The Final Word
Unfortunately, Michigan didn’t provide much of a product for viewers; it’ll be remembered for Menard’s victory and perhaps Kwasniewski and Bayne’s tangle, but that’s about it.
That’s not necessarily an issue; not every race is going to hit, and expecting them to do so is a fruitless endeavor.
Still, the series could have used some more momentum heading into its first road race of the year at Road America next weekend, marking a rare standalone event and one that’s sure to bring its share of new faces and solid racing. Sit back, relax and let the guys and gals turn right a few times next weekend.
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