While the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series enjoyed a week off, both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series were back in action again this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the Sam’s Town 300 and the Kobalt Tools 400, respectively.
Mark Martin used fuel strategy to his advantage to pull off the Nationwide Series win, beating out Justin Allgaier by a margin of victory of 1.221 seconds. 2010 Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski finished third, while Danica Patrick recorded the highest finishing position for a female driver in the history of NASCAR in the fourth position. 2011 Daytona 500 Champion Trevor Bayne rounded out the top 5.
The top four in the Nationwide Series driver standings remained unchanged. Leader Reed Sorenson holds a two-point advantage over second place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. while Jason Leffler sits third in points, five points behind. Patrick remained in the fourth position after her top-5 run and now sits 13 points back from the leader. Allgaier moved up three positions with his second place finish, and is now fifth in points and 16 points out of the lead.
In the Kobalt Tools 400, Carl Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne pulled off a victory of their own after both fuel and tire strategy put them out front following a round of green flag pit stops. Tony Stewart was the dominant driver of the day, leading a race high 163 laps only to fall short to Edwards by 1.246 seconds. Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
Stewart’s strong run gained him two positions in the standings to take the points lead and is now tied with Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch for the top spot. Edwards jumped up nine positions with the win, and sits seven points back in the third position. Montoya is tied with Edwards in points, while Newman jumped three spots in the standings to take fifth. He is ten points behind leader Stewart.
*Ryan Newman* — After a disappointing 22nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, Newman has knocked out two fifth-place finishes in a row at Phoenix and last weekend at Las Vegas. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver failed to lead a lap in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400, never running any higher than fifth; still, the end result was good enough to leave him fifth in points. Better yet, it’s his first back-to-back top-5 performances since a fourth at Martinsville and winning Phoenix in April 2010.
Those numbers look even stronger when compared to Newman’s start last year. After three races in 2010, he was 32nd in points after results of 34th at Daytona, 36th at Fontana, and 18th at Las Vegas. That left the “Rocket Man” fighting from behind to make the Chase all season – an issue he won’t have to deal with this year if he keeps up this impressive pace to start.
*Justin Allgaier* — Allgaier started this year off with a clean slate, moving to Nationwide-only Turner Motorsports from Penske Racing over the offseason after his Verizon Wireless sponsorship dried up. It was a controversial move for both sides, especially considering the two years of driver development invested in the former ARCA champ… so what’s the verdict? At this point, it’s looking like Penske made a mistake by letting him go. Though Allgaier failed to lead any laps, he capitalized on some fuel mileage strategy to finish second behind winner Mark Martin on Saturday. That was Allgaier’s second top-10 finish in a row, following an eighth last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway to give him solid momentum for 2011.
Three races in, Allgaier is now fifth in Nationwide Series points, just 16 behind leader Reed Sorenson. And as for Penske and former teammate Brad Keselowski? He’s got two DNFs in three races, nearly going three-for-three after cutting a tire on the last lap at Vegas. Allgaier passed Keselowski, in fact, on his way to the finish line in a bit of symbolism for how both sides are heading in different directions.
*Honorable Mention:* Marcos Ambrose (finished fourth in Kobalt Tools 400, best finish on an oval since Bristol in August 2009)
*Kenny Wallace* — Running the full Nationwide schedule for RAB Racing, armed with the best equipment and funding he’s had in years Wallace is making the most of the opportunity. He finished 10th in Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300, the second 10th-place finish in a row for a driver who hasn’t had more than two top-10s, period, in a season since 2006.
In fact, through the first three races of 2011, Wallace has completed all but five laps in all three races (Wallace finished 28th, five laps down in the season opener at Daytona after being caught up in a crash). Now eighth in points, 27 behind Sorenson the short track schedule ahead gives him a real opportunity to stay in contention.
How big a deal is this resurgence? Consider that while Wallace ran the full Nationwide schedule in 2010, after three races last year he had finishes of 16th (Daytona), 29th (Fontana), and 34th (Las Vegas). The poor finishes put Wallace 25th in points after three races, leaving him on the cusp of possibly losing a “locked in” qualifying spot. At this rate, he’ll have no such problems securing one for the season this year…
*Martin Truex, Jr.* — After a struggle throughout most of 2010, we’re seeing some NAPA Know-How from the No. 56 team this season. In three races, Truex has yet to finish outside of the top 20 with his lowest finish coming in the season-opening Daytona 500 (19th). Truex finished sixth in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading three laps en route to his first top-10 finish of the season. That leaves him seventh in points, 18 behind leaders Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch and set to be an early season surprise with a few more solid finishes.
(In a somewhat related note, this weekend we also saw the debut of a new NASCAR Tums commercial. In it, Truex’s Michael Waltrip Racing teammates David Reutimann and Waltrip have lunch … or at least attempt to. Waltrip tries eating a rib, but it “fights back” and starts slapping him in the face. Now, Tums has several non-racing commercials like this one, with foods such as tacos and lobster claws smacking the crap out of their devourers. The commercial is basically saying the food that makes your stomach feel like a war zone can be settled by Tums. Judging by the response I saw on Twitter, many people found the commercial pretty hilarious… but I found it rather creepy and somewhat terrifying. Give me Truex’s NAPA Know How any day.)
*Honorable Mention:* Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (finished eighth in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, his third top-10 in as many races in 2011)
*Clint Bowyer* — After getting caught up in wrecks during the season’s first two events, Bowyer was just looking for a little redemption and a strong finish this weekend in Vegas. After grabbing a bonus point for leading a lap, Bowyer brought his No. 33 Chevrolet home 15th, a respectable outcome. Bowyer never factored into the race, but he didn’t get caught up in someone else’s mess, either, which is something that can’t be said for his races in Daytona and Phoenix.
The problem is, though, Bowyer remains stuck in a hole of 18th place in the series point standings. He is 38 points out of the lead, 16 outside the top 10 and suffering through the same type of expansion growing pains with Richard Childress Racing that they experienced in 2009.
*Matt Kenseth* — Kenseth started on the pole for the Kobalt Tools 400, but failed to finish inside the top 10 after a flat tire under green derailed him. In fact, his finishes in the three races so far in 2011 have been rather “blah” (why he’s in the “cool” section to begin with). Sunday’s 11th-place result, an impressive comeback from two laps down was his highest so far – but his season hasn’t been without its share of controversy.
After Kenseth had Brian Vickers plotting revenge following an incident at Phoenix, he made some contact with Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne that caught the attention of the broadcast crew. Though not much was made of it from either driver, the incident generated some response from the racing community on Twitter. Whether or not it was intentional is more of a judgment call, but it wasn’t appreciated by Bayne’s fans (or Kenseth’s haters).
Kenseth gained seven positions in the standings and now sits 16th, 36 points out of the lead. But for a former series champion, considering Ford has won four of the last five races at the Cup level this driver of the No. 17 Ford expects better.
*Honorable Mention:* Mark Martin (finished 18th in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race after winning the Nationwide race Saturday)
*Kyle Busch* — Home track or not, Busch was no doubt ready to leave Las Vegas. After going for the weekend sweep in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races, Busch left with DNFs in both.
In the Nationwide Series race, Busch, as he’s apt to do in that division was dominating the race. Leading 84 laps, he seemed a shoo-in for victory before a daring move on lap 132, making it three wide below Michael Annett and Brad Keselowski sent Busch to the apron. His left side tires went into the grass, causing Busch to lose control of his car. It looked like he was going to be able to escape the incident without damage until he made it to the exit of pit road, spun again, and made contact with the inside retaining wall. The wreck would sideline Busch for the remainder of the event; he finished 30th.
In the Kobalt Tools 400, engine issues ended the No. 18 Toyota’s day prematurely. The engine let go 107 laps into the race, just after he had made it back onto the lead lap after a flat right front tire sent him into the wall, then the pits on Lap 95. Ending up with a 38th-place DNF, he dropped from the point lead in the Cup Series to 14th in one fell swoop. He is now 27 points back from leader Tony Stewart and brother Kurt.
*Greg Biffle* — Biffle can’t seem to catch a break. In three races this season, his best finish has been a 20th place, and things didn’t get any better this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Biffle finished 28th after dealing with fueling issues all day. In fact, at one point during the race, he actually had to pit under green after running out of fuel. The Roush Fenway Racing driver came over the radio several times during the race, all but pleading with his pit crew to find out why the stops were taking so long and why they weren’t getting the car full of gas.
The problems stemmed from the new self-venting fuel system, which eliminated the need for a catch can man over the offseason. The No. 16 team’s self-venting can failed a couple of times during the race, which is what kept the car from being completely filled and what caused Biffle to run out of gas. It’s a challenge all teams have to face in 2011, but Biffle was bit the hardest on Sunday.
Biffle fell three spots in the standings to 31st and is now 63 points out of the lead just three races in. Already, the hole he’ll have to dig out of to make the Chase is fairly steep.
*Honorable Mention:* Jennifer Jo Cobb (finished 31st in Nationwide Series race after contact with Kyle Busch)
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