A gutsy call by crew chief Danny Stockman on fuel gave Paul Menard the opportunity he needed to drive to Victory Lane at Road America, his home track. The victory was his third Xfinity Series victory and first win on a road course. Menard was the only Cup Series/non-NXS regular in the field as the Sprint Cup Series has an off-weekend, though the No. 33 did face some tough competition in the closing laps from Ryan Blaney.
Blaney got right up against Menard’s bumper on a few occasions in the final four laps of the race, following an extremely lengthy caution, but didn’t show the same aggression that Regan Smith did while racing with Alex Tagliani at Mid-Ohio. All the same, the end of the race featured some excitement when soon after the restart the top four were all bumper-to-bumper. Menard, however, held them all off to take the win.
Buescher maintains his points lead, but there is a new second-place driver as Elliott overtook Dillon in the points standings and is now 16 points behind Buescher with 10 races to go. Dillon is 19 points back in third. Smith and Elliott Sadler round out the top five in points.
Despite his rather sullen demeanor following the race, Elliott deserves a mention here. In the beginning stages of the race, Elliott had such a large lead (“a zillion car lengths” as his spotter put it) that only the No. 9 car was visible on several camera angles. Elliott led 23 laps in the 45-lap event, way more than any other competitor, and could have easily sailed away with the victory if not for a mishap on his part. While racing for the lead after a restart, Elliott got off track and into the grass, causing him to lose ground after having already lost the lead. He rebounded to finish fourth but that certainly wasn’t the preferred or the deserved finishing position for this team, but the No. 9 was undoubtedly the best car at the track.
Menard also deserves some credit. Though Menard’s calm and quiet demeanor — both on and off the track — causes him to be overlooked at times, the 35-year-old drove a great race and showed a road-racing prowess that many didn’t know he had.
Additionally, Scott and Wallace deserve praise. Scott said after the race that he believes he had the second-best car (to Elliott’s) and though he was only able to lead three laps, that certainly is a valid claim. He finished third behind Menard and Blaney and may have been able to pass even those two had the race restarted a few laps earlier. For Wallace, who has struggled on the road courses this season, a a fifth-place result was definitely a long time coming.
Polesitter Ben Rhodes never even led a lap and brought out the final caution of the race, getting into the gravel trap and requiring the help of a tow truck to get out. Rhodes finished 22nd, four laps down and may have created one of the most inexplicably long caution flags in NASCAR history.
Tomy Drissi, who is supposed to be a road-racing specialist, never could quite get out of his own way. He brought out the first caution of the day after getting off track and (like Rhodes) stuck in a gravel trap. Oh, by the way, this happened on the first lap. Then, towards the end of the race, Drissi stalled on the backstretch after running out of fuel. He finished 36th, 10 laps off the pace.
Finally, Blake Koch was about to have the run of his career. Due to a strategy call, Koch was able to lead five laps just before the final caution flag flew. Though it was doubtful that he would actually go on to win the race, it was certainly possible that Koch was about to earn his first career top-10 finish. Instead, Koch had a voltage issue during caution laps while the field was under the final yellow of the day, a “voltage” issue that may have had more to do with the car’s quickly drying fuel cell than anything wrong with the motor. Koch finished 21st.
This category, unequivocally, goes to the caution debacle that seems to rear its ugly head every time the series runs at Road America. Road courses produce some of the best racing in the sport, but at this behemoth of a racetrack, one caution lap is usually equivalent (if not greater than) a full caution sequence at a regular track. The initial pace laps to get the race going drag on and every caution lap seems to extend the race by another 10-20 minutes, depending upon the length of the cleanup.
The final caution of the race, though, seemed like it was never ever going to end. Rhodes spun off the racetrack and into a gravel trap, and needed some assistance in getting out. That’s not uncommon, however, and usually doesn’t take more than a couple of laps. No big deal.
Except this caution easily exceeded 20 minutes (and was pushing half an hour by the time the race resumed) due, in part, to the fact that a handful of cars either ran out of fuel or had some sort of mechanical failure every time it seemed any progress was made toward resuming the race. What should have been a simple, quick fix turned into a marathon caution and the fans were robbed of seeing several more laps of racing.
NASCAR seriously needs to consider utilizing local yellows or some other option with these cautions. Look to other series like Formula 1 or IndyCar and see how they handle road-course cautions. I know that sometimes it is impossible to avoid a full course yellow but in NASCAR it seems to be all or nothing. That’s not right and it’s mind-numbing and frustrating when it feels like most of the final portion of the race is spent under yellow.
Bottom line is that this “ugly” part of the race is fairly common at Road America and NASCAR desperately needs to find a solution.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Michael Self and Koch are both tied for this spot. Koch and Self were first and second, respectively, with 10 laps to go and would have earned their first career top-10 finishes had they been able to hold on for a little bit longer. Self fell back to 11th and Koch to 21st, but they receive the nod because these are two small teams who, for a few moments, were in the spotlight and outrunning all of the top teams. It wasn’t realistic to expect them to win, but the fact that they even had a chance was definitely inspirational and here’s hoping this isn’t the last time we see either of those drivers with a shot at the victory.
Double Duty Interlopers
Menard was the only driver not eligible for points in the NXS in the field. With this being an off-week for the Sprint Cup Series, Menard decided to take the opportunity to race at his home track, owing to the fact that Menard is originally from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The Final Word
There will, inevitably, be some moaning and groaning since the only Sprint Cup Series driver in the field managed to leave with the trophy. With that said, Menard earned this victory as much as anyone else and it was a fun race to watch in the final, oh, four laps that were actually run under green.
That, however, is where the problem is. Road-course racing lends itself to longer cautions because the racing surfaces are, by design, longer. That’s just the way it is. But there has to be some sort of middle ground for NASCAR to balance between the full-course cautions and keeping the yellows localized when necessary. Push the gravel traps back or find a way to get cars off the track quicker. Do something because it’s super easy to lose interest in a race when the field stays under caution in excess of 20 minutes.
The race wasn’t great at the beginning because Elliott was so dominant and there wasn’t much to comment on in the second half. I think it might have been an okay race, but it’s hard to make that judgment with the frustration of the lengthy cautions looming large.
“This is a track I’ve spent a lot of time at as a kid just riding around this track on ATVs, just finding little trails with my cousin and brothers. I actually had my cousin spotting for me in turn seven so that was cool. Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Road America are the three tracks that are really close to home for me and I’ve been able to win at all three. I’m a pretty lucky guy. As far as that goes, it’s a hell of a way to spend an off weekend. I spent the week in Wisconsin, driving over with my family on Thursday and getting to share some of the moments I had as a kid riding around this track with my daughter Thursday night and Friday night, so that was pretty special.” – Paul Menard, race winner
“We had a good car all day. We were up towards the front most of the day and this place always has different pit strategy there towards the end of the race. Some guys pit early, trying to stretch fuel. We pitted in our window which gave us a green-white-checkered or two, which usually happens here. I was actually surprised it didn’t happen. We made the car better all day which is really all you can ask for. Had a shot at the end and we just didn’t get quite close enough to Paul to make a move and get in there. But it was fun racing with him and fun racing with everybody today. Not a bad time down here. This place is fun and I look forward to hopefully coming back.” – Ryan Blaney, finished second
“That was a lot of credit to Seth and the team there for making that car to pit while taking the green on the second-to-last restart. I didn’t know how it would shake out. I was rolling by myself until the caution came out and I saw that we were fifth. I knew I had to hang on from there. I wish it had went green. I don’t know how that would have shaken out either. A great call by Seth again and I like that. We needed to change it up. We were running about 15th throughout the entire race and it was getting kind of boring back there so I said, ‘Hey, I’d rather kick ourselves for trying something than vice versa.’ It was a good day, good day to come out of Road America with a top five. A top five is good for our team and definitely what we need for our season. It’s been kinda up and down and a couple rough patches the last few races but a lot of fun to run a road race.” – Darrell Wallace Jr., finished fifth