Chris Buescher and his Roush Fenway Racing team gave up on their Nationwide Series championship hopes long ago. Instead, they focused on trying to win a race during their rookie season.
Saturday it was mission accomplished. Buescher and crew chief Scott Graves played the fuel mileage strategy at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in order to lead the final 25 laps. The victory was Buescher’s first in 30 career Nationwide starts. It also moved him to seventh in points even though he missed the first race of the season in Daytona.
Buescher started the day in the fifth and kept his No. 60 Ford Mustang on the tail of the dominant machines – Brian Scott, Sam Hornish Jr. and Alex Tagliani. The front five engaged in a furious battle through the first 25 laps until pit stops began. From there, different agendas began to play out, and many favorites left the picture.
Brian Scott jumped to an early lead when the green flag fell on the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 and led a race-high 39 of 90 laps. The Richard Childress Racing driver was hardly far from the top five throughout the event but when he lost the lead through a round of stops and was run off course by Tagliani and had to pit, it was the beginning of the end. Scott never made it back to the lead and finished fourth.
Meanwhile, Tagliani never led a lap all day in his Team Penske Ford and was busted for speeding on pit road. He rebounded for a fifth place finish and still searches for his first Nationwide Series win.
Pole sitter Sam Hornish Jr., on the other hand, never fell further back than third. Though he lost the lead on the first lap, Hornish and Tagliani continually traded the second position through the first portion of the race. While running second on Lap 51, Hornish missed a gear and subsequently lost an engine. At the same time his teammate, Kenny Habul, did the same thing and ended the day for the Joe Gibbs Racing cars.
Hornish wound up 30th while Habul was credited with a 31st place finish.
Point leader Chase Elliott left Mid-Ohio with another top 10 finish (fourth) on a road course, making it three-for-three on the season. With 11 races remaining in the 2014 season, he continues to lead JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith, now by 10 points. Smith came home second on Saturday with his first top 10 on a road course this year.
Behind Buescher were Smith, Scott, Elliott, Tagliani, Justin Marks, Elliott Sadler, Dylan Kwasniewski, Trevor Bayne and Dakoda Armstrong to compile the top 10.
The 2 hour, 38-minute race saw five caution flags and six lead changes among five drivers. The series returns to action next Friday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Chase Elliott is the point leader by 10 over Regan Smith with Elliott Sadler third, Ty Dillon fourth and Brian Scott sitting fifth. The remaining drivers in the top 10 are Chris Buescher, Brendan Gaughan, Ryan Reed, and James Buescher.
Regan Smith entered Mid-Ohio knowing full well that part of his 2013 championship decline was due in part to road courses. It had not gotten any better this season as he failed to finish better than 13th in the first at Road America and Watkins Glen.
Saturday Smith finally broke through. The No. 7 was able to keep its nose clean and run well within the top 10 with the leaders throughout the event. Not even a broken exhaust could bring him down. As Chris Buescher played the fuel mileage game, Smith came down pit road and left as the first one off of the leaders. He restarted seventh and made his way to the runner-up position where he would have been sitting pretty had Buescher failed to make it to the end.
Smith finished second and gained two points on his teammate in the championship. He now heads to Bristol where he finished 10th earlier this year.
Not too far behind Smith was another driver who was looking for a deserved road course finish. Again in the No. 31 for Turner Scott Motorsports, Justin Marks had a strong car but made costly mistakes. On Lap 19, he went off course and covered the grille of his machine with grass, causing an unscheduled stop. On that trip down pit road, he was busted for speeding and was forced to come back in.
In the process, the caution flew and saved Marks from losing too much track position. Though he spent the remainder of the day digging out of the hole for a sixth place finish, Marks was never again a factor for the win.
Looking at the championship picture entering Saturday, the top four were separated by just 13 points. Ty Dillon was still riding the high of his first career Nationwide Series win a few weeks ago in Indianapolis but came crashing back down in Mid-Ohio.
The Richard Childress driver started fourth and had a front row seat as the leaders engaged in a furious battle in the first quarter of the race. Dillon even stuck the nose of his No. 3 Chevrolet in the mix a few times. But Dillon was done when he needed to sit on pit road in order for the crew to change the power steering pump and box.
He fell two laps down and was only able to regain one lap by day’s end for a 19th place finish. While he remains fourth in points, Dillon now sits over 20 markers behind the leaders.
But for as bad as his day was, nothing compares to the year that James Buescher is having. There isn’t much more that can be said about the luck and failures that the RAB Racing team has had with the No. 99, and it continued Saturday.
Though he started 11th and ran the equivalent, Buescher lost a right front tire on Lap 27 and had to limp around the 13-turn course back to pit road. He ended the day six laps down and with a 25th place finish.
All three Joe Gibbs Racing cars – Elliott Sadler, Sam Hornish and Kenny Habul – were factors on Saturday and with the right strategy would have had a shot at the win. Hornish was by far the superior car from the organization as he started on the pole and led laps, never running lower than third.
But also simultaneously he and Habul missed shifts and killed their engines. Hornish drove back to the garage for the team to do a quick once over to see if they could continue, but Habul stalled on track and had to be pushed back.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Road course racing tends to bring out the best in crew chiefs when it comes to pit strategy and fuel mileage. The TriStar Motorsports teams of Mike Bliss and Jeff Green did both that and had drivers who kept themselves in contention should circumstances have fallen their way.
Bliss started 20th and ran an average race around the 13th position. He continually moved up through the field and even led during one round of pit stops. He would up 11th.
Teammate Green ran about the same and was moving through the field late when he lost the throttle. The No. 14 started the day 17th and was running second when the throttle stuck and sent him hard nose first into the tire barrier. It ended his day and left him with a 29th place finish.
Green joked after being released from the infield care center that his day proved that old guys could still get it on.
Double Duty and Start-and-Park Effect
3 of 39 drivers who competed on Saturday will fly to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race.
6 of 39 drivers on Saturday decided to start-and-park.
The Final Word
The treacherous road courses might be behind the series, but next comes the rough and tumble Bristol bullring. Chase Elliott continues to pass every test he’s given and will look to repeat his strong top 10 performance from the spring.
Behind him, the gap is beginning to spread on the competition, but there is another stretch of races coming up that will continue to shape the field. The Sprint Cup Series regulars will also be around over the next few weeks and victories might become few and far between. But as Chris Buescher proved on Saturday, with the right set of circumstances anyone can break out at any time.
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