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In a Nutshell: John Hunter Nemechek survived the war at Atlanta Motor Speedway and wheeled his way to a second career victory in Saturday’s Great Clips 200. In a race that was slowed by a late-race red flag, Nemechek inherited the lead from Christopher Bell inside 10 laps to go and held off a charge from Cameron Hayley to take the win by 0.305 seconds. Timothy Peters and Daniel Hemric finished third and fourth, respectively. Meanwhile, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and John Wes Townley took the checkered flag three-wide, separated by mere inches, but it was Enfinger who got the edge and rounded out the top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Christopher Bell. Much like a good chunk of last season, the No. 4 Toyota was stout on race day, and Bell wasted little time chasing Matt Crafton before taking the lead for the first time on lap 7. Bell overcame a tire failure that put him a lap down following an unscheduled pit stop and a late-race pit road mistake that cost him the lead. It looked like he was a lock for Victory Lane inside 10 laps to go before another tire failure ended his day. The 21-year-old led three times for 42 laps before being forced to settle for a 26th-place finish.
Johnny Sauter’s Struggles
Daytona winner Johnny Sauter struggled with speed all day on Friday; during a trio of practice sessions for the series, the driver of the No. 21 Chevrolet managed to post a 13th-quickest lap in the first practice but dropped through the field the rest of the afternoon. After qualifying 16th Saturday morning, it looked like the team had figured out at least a bit of speed, but Sauter still had half of the field to pass if he was going to have any hope of competing for a win.
The problems for the No. 21 team began before the green flag even flew when Sauter couldn’t even get the truck fired when the field began pace laps. A quick trip down pit road allowed the team to help him get going, but the newest addition to GMS Racing was left to start at the rear of the field.
Having made up ground through a long green-flag run to open the race before the first caution flew, Sauter was inside the top 10 when his truck just shut off on the following restart. Taking the No. 21 down pit road, the team initially planned to change the ignition box but opted not to when Sauter got it running again. But a lap later, he still couldn’t get up to speed and was forced to go to the garage for repiars.
While the crew quickly changed out the ignition box and got Sauter back on track, he was still nine laps down and well out of contention for a trip to Victory Lane after a thrilling win last weekend. The No. 21 team limped home in 28th, and Sauter dropped nine spots in the standings to 10th.
Despite the struggles, Sauter walked away from Atlanta with a much more positive perspective than you would have expected.
“The difference between yesterday and today was incredible. I don’t know why we had issues but I’m glad we figured it out and were able to get a shot to run some good lap times and make improvements,” Sauter said. “It’s just unbelievable how great the No. 21 Chevrolet ran once we got back out there. I can’t thank Marcus and these guys enough for sticking with me. It’s early in the season but I really think we’re on to something big here at GMS Racing. I’m ready for Martinsville. I hate that we have to wait so long to get back on track but I’m excited about what we’ll have when we get there.”
The good news for Sauter is that a drop from first to 10th in points isn’t as much of a harm this year than in years past, thanks to the Chase. While he doesn’t want to continue a free-fall through the standings, the small consolation prize is that he’s already qualified to race for the championship after winning last weekend.
KBM’s Rough Day in Atlanta
Kyle Busch Motorsports came into Atlanta Motor Speedway looking to check off the final active track on the schedule that it hasn’t won a race at, and at the beginning of the race, it looked like Bell might be the one to take the KBM flag all the way to Victory Lane.
But it wasn’t meant to be for the organization Saturday afternoon. The trio of Christopher Bell, William Byron and Daniel Suarez started third, 15th and 13th, respectively, but none of the three actually got to finish the Great Clips 200.
First to fall was William Byron, who was reeling in Matt Crafton just past the 50-lap mark when his engine expired in a large puff of smoke. The No. 9 Toyota was towed straight to garage and loaded up to head back to the shop; Byron was the first truck out of the race and finished 32nd.
Meanwhile, Bell led early before a tire failure sent him down pit road for an unscheduled pit stop and right off of the lead lap. After taking advantage of the wave-around, Bell managed to once again race down Matt Crafton to take the top spot, which he held until the caution clock expired for the second time on lap 107. A mistake pulling into his pit box, thanks to the sun in his eyes, dropped Bell to fifth for the following restart.
Shortly after the green flag flew, chaos ensued when Bell moved up the track and clipped teammate Daniel Suarez, who was racing side-by-side with Crafton for the race lead. The spinning No. 51 Toyota clipped the right rear corner of the No. 88 Toyota, and both Suarez and Crafton took hard hits to the SAFER barriers. Both drivers looked visibly shaken after their trucks came to rest, but were released from the infield care center shortly after arriving.
Following the red flag period to clean up the carnage from the Crafton/Suarez wreck, Bell once again took the lead, this time from Cameron Hayley, and it looked like he was home free en route to Victory Lane as his lead expanded. But with just eight laps remaining, that pesky right front tire let go and Bell was sent hard into the outside wall.
After watching team owner Kyle Busch go to Victory Lane earlier in the day in the XFINITY race, KBM had high hopes of complimenting that win with one of its own. Instead, all three trucks were loaded up on the wreckers and sent home with the consolation prize of knowing the team has plenty of speed this year.
- Just one week after matching Ricky Benton Racing’s career-best finish of third, Parker Kligerman got another run behind the wheel of the No. 92 in Atlanta. He started 17th and spent a good chunk of the race inside the top 15 before taking the checkered flag eighth. In just two races, Kligerman has already matched the most top-10 finishes the organization has managed in a single season (two with David Gilliland in seven starts last season). While much of the season is up in the air due to sponsorship uncertainties, finishes of third and eighth to open the year should be enough to open the wallets of some company to back the organization for at least a few more races this season.
- Last week, Ryan Truex nearly took Shigeaki Hattori’s No. 81 Toyota to Victory Lane and backed it up by qualifying eighth on Saturday. He ran inside the top 15 all day until late race contact with Rico Abreu caused him to scrape the outside wall; he finished 20th. Truex has already said he hopes to run the full season, but like most drivers whose plans this year are race-to-race, it all depends on funding.
- Contreras Motorsports made its Camping World Truck Series debut Saturday afternoon with Carlos Contreras behind the wheel. The driver of the No. 71 Chevrolet started 31st and finished 27th, eight laps down. The start marks the first for a Mexican team in any of NASCAR’s top three series.
- This week marked the second race in a row where multiple drivers were sent home after qualifying when 37 trucks posted times for the 32 truck field. Jordan Anderson, Norm Benning, Ryan Ellis, Korbin Forrister and Tim Veins failed to qualify.
- The Great Clips 200 marked the first race the new caution clock came into play. The first time the clock expired, it erased a nearly six second lead for Matt Crafton, and the second cost Christopher Bell a 1.18 second lead. So far this season, two of 12 cautions have been brought out by the caution clock. (Author’s Note: I will keep a running total all season to see just how much the clock really comes into play.)
Truck Rookie Report
2016 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 00 Cole Custer
No. 4 Christopher Bell
No. 9 William Byron
No. 18 Cody Coughlin
No. 22 Austin Wayne Self
No. 33 Grant Enfinger
No. 41 Ben Rhodes
No. 98 Rico Abreu
No. of Rookies in the Race: 12 (add Brandon Brown, Carlos Contreras, Austin Hill, Garrett Smithley and Ryan Truex)
No. of Rookies to Finish in the Top 10: 2; Grant Enfinger, finished fifth; Ben Rhodes, finished sixth
Rookie of the Race: Grant Enfinger
“I was fighting tightness a majority of the race. I got shuffled back on the opening lap of the event, which hurt us with track position but I fought my way back up and came out with a truck in one piece and a top-5 finish. I had one fast Alamo Rent-A-Car Chevrolet thanks to my crew chief Jeff Stankiewicz and my No. 33 GMS Racing crew who worked so hard this weekend and at the shop to prepare this bullet. I’m so appreciative of this opportunity and wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of Alamo Rent-A-Car, Champion Power Equipment, WURTH USA and Portable Shade.” Enfinger
Points Update: The entire top 10 is separated by a mere 14 points two races into the season. Parker Kligerman leads the standings after back-to-back top-10 finishes to open the year, up two spots from last week. Daniel Hemric jumped five positions and trails Kligerman by a single point. Race winner John Hunter Nemechek moves up 12 spots to third, followed by Timothy Peters, who moved up eight positions to fourth. Tyler Young, up one spot, rounds out the top 5.
Ryan Truck and Brandon Brown each dropped multiple spots and now sit sixth and seventh, respectively. Rookie Ben Rhodes moves up eight positions on the strength of a sixth-place finish to eighth, followed by fellow rookie Grant Enfinger, who advances nine spots. Meanwhile, Johnny Sauter, who led the standings after his win last week dropped all the way to the bottom and rounds out the top 10.
2016 Chase Qualifiers:
Johnny Sauter (Daytona)
John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta)
“I was debating on the radio whether I wanted the outside or the inside line. I had restarted on the outside twice there and Jerry (Kennon) came on the radio, and he said ‘Bottom, bottom, bottom. Do not restart on the outside. I don’t know what it is about this place, but it’s really slick on the top. It’s a great way to get our second win. The pit crew won us this race. I can’t thank all those guys enough. It’s an unsponsored truck for us again – two times in the winner’s circle.” John Hunter Nemechek
“I’m beating myself up a little bit. It was a great run for our Cabinets by Hayley Tundra team – best career finish. I can’t complain about that, but I just know in the back of my head if Matt Crafton was in my truck, he could have won that. I just – I needed to run a little bit harder, but great run to start up this year. This was my hardest track all year. I needed to get this one over with and to come out of here second, I’m pretty happy with the team and proud of everything Toyota, everybody has done for me. It’s just an amazing start to the year.” Cameron Hayley, finished second
Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series will take the next month off before heading to Martinsville Speedway Saturday, April 2. The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 at 2:30 p.m. ET and can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiriusXM channel 90.