When all was was said and done Saturday, Roush Fenway Racing had clinched the manufacturer’s championship in the Nationwide ranks for Ford. That was just as expected. The only difference is… it wasn’t Carl Edwards who did the clinching.
Despite leading a race-high 157 laps, Edwards couldn’t close the deal for the final six. Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere on a late-race restart, stormed past Edwards, then held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin to score a long-awaited first NNS win. Hamlin, Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
That late restart proved to not only determine the race… it may well have turned the title tide as well. After winning the pole and running in the top 5 all day, Elliott Sadler got loose on the final charge and dropped like a rock, struggling to bring the No. 2 car home ninth and losing all the ground he had made up on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. The sophomore sensation made several passes during the same charge to finish sixth, extending his points lead to 17 with only two races remaining in the season.
While both *Bayne’s* and *Stenhouse’s* racecars were not up to the level of Edwards’ Mustang for the majority of Saturday afternoon, in the end the team’s two development drivers ended up delivering the goods for the Roush Fenway organization. As for Bayne, this win was a long time coming, and it was perhaps fitting that his first victory, just as with Stenhouse’s, came as a result of passing their Cup teammate late in the running. Bayne, whose Daytona 500 win has been largely overshadowed the last few months as Stenhouse competed for the championship, proved to be quite the wheelman in aggressively stealing one from the No. 60 in the closing laps at Texas. The end result? What can only be described as a hugely popular win. Stenhouse, meanwhile, put any questions regarding his mental maturity to close the book on this championship run to bed with a persistent late-race charge that erased nearly 300 miles of handling struggles. Despite being vocally upset over the radio that his car was “junk” in the race’s midsection, the No. 6 team was there when it counted, able to pounce when competitor Sadler found trouble. A strong showing indeed for the Blue Oval’s flagship brigade.
*Sam Hornish, Jr.* is in the final stretch of his partial 2011 campaign, with a full-time ride still not a done deal for next year, and he drove every bit like it on Saturday. Penske’s No. 12 car was a top-10 fixture, even with a part-time crew. What’s more, the former IndyCar star even proved able to recover after getting into the marbles on the high side in turn 2 and scrubbing the fence. Finishing seventh, Hornish has scored three top 10s in his last five starts, with the other two a 12th at Charlotte and a strong showing at Iowa, where he led 39 circuits. The case for making this guy a full-timer again in 2012 is continually getting stronger.
Hats off to *Kenny Wallace* not only for making his record 520th start in the Nationwide Series ranks, but for making something of it. Despite being handicapped by a broken tachometer on pit road, Wallace managed to keep himself on the lead lap all day even over the course of an 84-lap, green flag run. Finishing 13th, Wallace is all but a lock to finish seventh in the points, which will be his best finish since 2005.
*Danica Patrick* finished 11th; she’s run in the top 20 in five of her last six starts. Still not a showing worthy of the Second Coming, but it’s a relief to know the former open-wheeler has come as far as she has from her wrecking ball 2010 debut.
No matter the equipment, it seems that new, highly touted race cars are proving to be an Achilles’ heel for *Sadler* and the No. 2 team. Rewind back to the fall race at Dover; the team’s sponsor held the title for the race, OneMain had hundreds of company reps at the track, and Sadler was poised to make a charge in points courtesy of a pole-winning qualifying run and a brand new car specifically selected for the Monster Mile. But when the day was over, Sadler finished outside the top 10 and lost ground after being a non-factor all day. While it wasn’t quite the same this time (Sadler ran well for most of the race), the same scenario played out. Despite having an RCR car and winning the pole, when the final restart came and the points were on the line, the No. 2 car quickly faded, leaving Sadler both winless and further out of the title lead.
*Aric Almirola* has enjoyed a far stronger second half of the 2011 season after an inauspicious start, but a red-hot summer stretch has cooled considerably in recent weeks. After three consecutive finishes outside the top 10, Almirola suffered minor early damage on lap 1, avoiding congestion on the backstretch, and was a non-factor from then on. Finishing 19th, Almirola endured his worst result on an oval since Kentucky way back in July.
*Mike Bliss* has endured a similar cold spell the past few races, with three finishes of 20th or worse snapping what had been a more productive span of six consecutive top-20 results. This weekend, however, saw the No. 19 car with sponsorship on board courtesy of Brookshire’s Food & Pharmacy, making the 23rd-place finish all the more disappointing. Finishing three laps down, Bliss and team endured their worst afternoon since Nashville back in July.
*Jason Leffler’s* struggles to find a ride were surprisingly documented during ESPN’s telecast, as was his current run of five consecutive weeks without a top-10 finish. And on a day that Turner Motorsports was on less than their A-game (both Justin Allgaier and James Buescher also finished outside the top 10), that streak was continued for the team’s longest-tenured driver. What was going to be a lackluster day turned ugly on lap 189, when the No. 38 car got loose in turn 4 and slapped the wall on corner exit. The damage was minor and confined to the right corner of the rear decklid, but it was an exclamation point on what may well prove the end of one of the Nationwide Series’ longest-running partnerships. Leffler’s 2012 plans got no surer as a result of this Saturday’s race.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: MacDonald Motorsports.* The team’s late season acquisition of the displaced *Reed Sorenson* finally appeared to pay dividends this Saturday in Texas, with both the Nos. 81 and 82 cars posting solid results. The team’s primary driver in *Blake Koch* finished a strong 22nd, two laps off the pace (by comparison, he finished five laps down in 25th back in the spring) after posting a career-best 13th-place qualifying effort. And as for Sorenson, his 16th-place finish was by far his best in his limited tenure with MacDonald’s second team. His result equaled the best for any MacDonald Motorsports entry in 2011.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $79,718 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored 6 of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied 9 of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $222,058 in purse money.
410 of 1,324 starting positions occupied (30.9%)
$8,742,332 dollars won
26 of 31 trophies collected (83.9%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
*Brian Scott*, *Blake Koch*, *Mike Bliss*, *James Buescher*, *Reed Sorenson*, *Scott Riggs*, *Mike Wallace*, *Robert Richardson*, *Joey Gase*, *Jeremy Clements*, *Derrike Cope* and *Morgan Shepherd* all ran the distance in Saturday’s race and were not mentioned in any significant capacity during ESPN’s telecast. In addition, *Jamie Dick* was only mentioned during his lap 3 spin across the frontstretch grass, while *Timmy Hill* and *Eric McClure* were mentioned only as lapped traffic.
*The Final Word: Who You Didn’t See*
* Derrike Cope finished 30th on a subpar weekend for Jay Robinson Racing; while Cope finished the event, both *Dennis Setzer* and *Mark Green* failed to qualify the teams Nos. 48 and 49 start-and-park cars.
* Jamie Dick rebounded to finish 31st after the previously mentioned spin on lap 3; despite the nice save to keep the car in one piece during that early incident, the result was the worst for Means Racing’s No. 52 car since Bristol in August.
* Scott Riggs ran the distance for R3 Motorsports in their second No. 03 car, finishing 27th for his best result since Darlington and breaking a streak of nine consecutive DNFs for the North Carolina native (eight of those were start-and-parks).
*The Final Word*
* ESPN got a few items right in Texas, even if their broadcast ignored over half the field that actually contested the full race on Saturday. For one, Danica Patrick finally got coverage appropriate of an 11th-place driver that was ultimately not a factor in how the race played out.
* What’s more, hats off to Dale Jarrett for openly questioning that the improvement in performance cited by Turner Motorsports as the reason for Reed Sorenson’s untimely firing was nowhere to be seen, even with Brian Vickers behind the wheel. Spot on.
* Despite those compliments, anyone that doubts just how choreographed motorsports news is in this day and age should take one look at the broadcast’s backward step over comments made regarding Hornish’s 2012 plans. Not 30 minutes after noting that Hornish was going to be a full-timer in the 2012 Nationwide Series, the network’s members were quick to clarify that the deal wasn’t signed, sealed and delivered. Five bucks says that’s nothing more than ESPN brass reminding the broadcast crew that it’s not yet time to make the announcement for Penske Racing.
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