Michael McDowell had been close to winning at Road America before, but he had always come away empty-handed. On Saturday, McDowell got his first chance since 2013 to tackle the four-mile road course in Wisconsin. This time, McDowell was the one in victory lane. Driving for Richard Childress Racing, he put together a solid race, culminating with an impressive overtime run to the checkers while holding off teammate Brendan Gaughan.
“It’s just huge,” McDowell said about his first XFINITY Series win. “I’m so thankful, very blessed, thank God first and foremost. RCR, Rheem, this Chevrolet was super fast.”
A week after winning with Austin Dillon at Bristol, Childress’ No. 2 team was strong once again. McDowell qualified on the front row and showed a lot of speed early in the race, mixing it up with fellow front runners Alex Tagliani and Justin Marks. All three drivers made their first pit stop of the day around lap 10 of the 45 lap contest and immediately resumed their battle for the top spots. Although Gaughan, as well as the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Owen Kelly and Daniel Suarez, was lurking back in the pack, it looked like the path to victory would go through McDowell, Tagliani, and Marks.
McDowell was able to capitalize on some of his competitors’ mistakes. Marks got penalized for speeding on pit road after the first round of pit stops, putting the No. 42 back in the pack. Meanwhile, McDowell and Tagliani worked their way back through the field. Tagliani, driving Team Penske’s No. 22 car, led most of the opening laps, and was also looking for his first NXS victory after several near-misses. He took the lead back from Erik Jones shortly after a restart on lap 16. Just past the halfway point, however, Tagliani overshot turn five, swinging wide into the asphalt runoff area. The misstep allowed McDowell to take the lead for the first time.
A caution came out for rain on lap 26. NASCAR gave the teams the option to switch to rain tires, but the precipitation moved out of the area before it soak the track. All of the leaders did use the opportunity to come to pit road. On the following restart, Tagliani got the lead back from Jones again, but contact with McDowell in turn six sent Tagliani spinning. The No. 22 team lost all of its track position and never fully recovered.
Following the incident with Tagliani, McDowell had control of the race, but he still had to fend off some more challengers. A caution on lap 36 for Nic Hammann’s stalled car offered another opportunity to make a pit stop. McDowell and Marks, who had rebounded to second after the speeding penalty, stayed out. Several other drivers pitted, including Gaughan, Jones, Justin Allgaier, Ty Dillon, and Ryan Reed. McDowell continued to show the way, but Gaughan took advantage of his fresh tires and two short green flag runs to make up ground.
On the penultimate lap, Alon Day got stuck in a gravel trap, forcing NASCAR to throw the sixth and final yellow flag of the race. As the drivers prepared for overtime, fuel became a concern for McDowell, Suarez, and Kelly, but Gaughan, having pitted more recently, was good to go. In the last two laps, Gaughan charged up to second and tried to find a way past McDowell, but the No. 2 team held on to win its second consecutive NXS race.
“We definitely had speed, but Brendan had new tires and he was obviously fast,” McDowell said. “He raced me hard; he did a great job. He had an opportunity to get to my bumper there, and I drove it in as hard as I could (thinking) hopefully he wouldn’t get there.”
Gaughan was happy after the race to see a teammate win.
“My Chevy was great all day, and Michael McDowell… his Chevrolet was awesome too,” Gaughan said. “To come down to the end to both of us, (it’s) three years in a row where RCR’s won at Road America. I love this race track. I’ve been saying it didn’t matter if it rained or if it was dry. I know I’m the guy who wants it wet, but I didn’t care either way, I love this track.”
Suarez finished fourth, but Marks, Jones, and Kelly all got caught up in skirmishes during the overtime laps. Marks got the worst of it, getting stuck in a gravel trap on the last lap and plummeting to 32nd place. Kelly and Jones wound up 17th and 21st respectively.
Reed was a likely Chase participant before Road America, but Saturday’s race probably settled the matter. His fifth place finish is his first top five since winning the season-opening race at Daytona last year. It also put him 69 points above the Chase cutoff with three races left.
Brennan Poole did even better at Road America. The No. 48 team had a very quiet race until the closing laps, when Poole snuck into the top five and finished third.
Two more NXS regulars rebounded from problems to post top ten finishes. Elliott Sadler made contact with Gaughan in the pits on lap 28, producing a serious tire rub. Sadler had to return to pit road after the race went green to fix the damage. Despite losing a lot of time, Sadler fought back to finish eighth.
Darrell Wallace, Jr.’s comeback was even more impressive. On lap 31, Wallace experienced a major overheating issue. A plume of steam shot out of Wallace’s car as he rolled to pit road, and the No. 6 team lost a lap in the pits trying to correct the problem. Wallace later got the free pass and avoided further issues, ending his day in ninth.
It looked like Jeremy Clements was on track to score a second consecutive top ten finish, but the closing laps were disastrous for the No. 51 team. Stuck with old tires, Clements faded badly during the overtime laps, dropping all the way to 25th. On a day when Clements ran as high as third, he lost a lot of points he did not need to lose. Now 33 points behind the Chase cut line, Clements’ path to the postseason just got a lot tougher.
Two weeks ago, Ross Chastain was only three points out of the Chase. Now he is 34 out. Road America was another rough race for the No. 4 team. Chastain ran poorly most of the day, but the real problems emerged on lap 35 when Chastain’s car started smoking. Fortunately, the problem did not end Chastain’s day, but finishing 33rd might have ended his Chase hopes.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
J.J. Yeley went for a spin with less than ten laps left in the race, but fought back to finish tenth. Yeley delivered the first top ten of the season to Tri-Star Motorsports. Ryan Preece also did well to finish 11th, especially on a day when his JD Motorsports teammates (Chastain and Garrett Smithley) ran into trouble.
The Final Word
It has been a long time coming, but McDowell is finally a NASCAR winner. It is not a huge shock to see him win, given his past performances at Road America and the recent strength of the No. 2 team. Is this a sign that RCR might have something for JGR in the Chase? Maybe, but the key to winning the championship will be performing well on the intermediate tracks. Although Jones’ up and down season continues and Suarez has stumbled a few times in recent weeks, JGR should still hold the advantage on the cookie cutter tracks unless someone can prove otherwise during the early races of the Chase.
Meanwhile, there are really only two Chase spots still up for grabs. Neither Blake Koch nor Ryan Sieg can feel too comfortable with their points positions, but they both have a good shot at making the postseason if they can minimize mistakes. Going forward, the real burden will be on Clements, Chastain, and Dakoda Armstrong to close the points gap.
Road America wraps up the road course-centric portion of the XFINITY schedule. Saturday’s race did not produce the outright craziness of some past events at Road America, but it did produce a seventh different winner in seven NXS races at the Wisconsin track. Interestingly, none of the three August road course race winners are eligible for the XFINITY Chase. It was nice for fans to see first time winners like McDowell and Marks, but NASCAR must be wondering when its NXS regulars will take the spotlight this year.
NASCAR’s XFINITY racers will prepare to dance with the Lady in Black on Saturday, September 3rd for the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway. Race coverage begins at 3:30 PM Eastern on NBC.
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