In what was arguably the tamest outing the Nationwide Series has seen in its short history at Road America, a Truck Series regular that laid waste to the field. After winning the pole in only his third Nationwide Series start, Nelson Piquet Jr. found himself battling all day with some of the best road racers in the business… and driving away from them. Leading 19 of the 50 circuits run, Piquet scored his first career NASCAR victory and became the first Brazilian to win a Nationwide Series race. Michael McDowell, Ron Fellows, Max Papis, and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top 5.
It was a tumultuous day for the point leaders as all three found adversity during the course of the Series’ longest race track. Austin Dillon suffered through transmission issues, Elliott Sadler was spun late, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was a non-factor throughout the afternoon (though he did score his first top 15 in four races). It was also a strong showing for the road ringers, with the specialists combining to lead 42 of 50 laps and scoring five of the top six finishing positions.
The standings remained the same up top, but the margin closed up, with Elliott Sadler leading Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by 11 and 23 markers respectively heading into Kentucky. Danica Patrick moved back into the top 10 in the standings after her strongest showing of the season, running top 5 before being spun late and finishing 12th.
There’s been plenty of ink used in this column already in 2012 describing how James Buescher was sitting primed and ready to take the No. 30 seat in the Turner Motorsports camp. Apparently, Nelson Piquet Jr. wants to play too. Piquet raced the entire day surrounded by major league names Fellows, Villenueve, and Papis… and none of them could touch him when it counted. Piquet was in a league of his own for the final 40+ miles of this race, and his win looked almost easy. Piquet’s got one more NNS race on the books for the year at Watkins Glen… Turner may be well served to get this talent some oval races though.
Sam Hornish Jr. lost a ton of track position in the early going when his gasman couldn’t get the tank out in time on a pit stop, but the rebound of the No. 12 car was one of the highlights of the race’s second half. A slow and steady progression saw Hornish claw his way back into the top 10, into the top 5, and to a fifth place finish. Perhaps most notably, Hornish made what was arguably the most aggressive move anyone in the field did around Jacques Villeneueve all day, racing within inches of him and making the pass doing it. Hornish will be a factor come Watkins Glen and Montreal.
As previously mentioned, the road course ringers came to play on Saturday. Nelson Piquet Jr. won in convincing fashion. Ron Fellows got the best of teammate Danica Patrick even on a career-day, rebounding from an early flat tire that cost the No. 5 team 45 seconds on track to finish third, his third consecutive top-3 showing at Road America. Max Papis made his first NASCAR start of 2012 count, shaking off a pit stop miscue late to come home fourth. And Jacques Villeneuve, even doing his best wrecking ball impression and getting spun early by Michael McDowell, led 10 laps and finished sixth.
Justin Allgaier came within a whisker of causing a nasty collision in turn 5 on lap 37 when his wheels locked up, leaving the No. 31 car to barrel into the turn at nearly full speed. Making contact with Kurt Busch en route to a gravel trap, Allgaier and team repaired the damage to their right rear quarter panel and still came home 10th.
Cole Whitt finished ninth in his first career road course start in a backup car.
In the grand scheme of things, finishing fourth, 15th, and 18th isn’t a bad day; but Richard Childress Racing needed a lot more–and should have gotten a lot more–out of this Saturday. Papis finished fourth, but was never in contention to win after dragging a gas can out of his pit stall during the final round of stops. Elliott Sadler looked primed to repeat his top 5 showing of a season ago. But racing in a tight pack on a lap 39 restart in turn 5, Sadler ended up coming across the nose of oncoming traffic and spinning into the fence; the No. 2 would rebound to finish 15th. Austin Dillon, meanwhile, never had a chance to make noise in this one after losing third gear in his transmission early. Again, not a terrible day, but in the grand scheme of things their road ringer lost a shot to win on pit road and both title contenders lost ground on a road course to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. There’s no way that’s not a disappointment.
The other Brazilian Truck Series regular in the field spent almost as much time up front as Piquet did on Saturday, but the results weren’t there. Miguel Paludo led four circuits and played the strategy card well in keeping track position up front, but the No. 32 car was forced to pit road on lap 47 and never returned to the track. Despite a top 10 qualifying effort, Paludo finished 29th.
Casey Roderick’s day was over before it began, as the No. 24 team was off the track only a couple of laps into the event. Though the No. 24 team eventually got on the track, they finished the day 10 laps down with no mention whatsoever as to what their early issue was. The 32nd place finish was Roderick’s worst since an early wreck at Darlington nearly two months ago.
The gas men on pit road seemed to have trouble throughout the day getting the cans out of their race cars, with both Sam Hornish Jr. and Max Papis suffering costly penalties for equipment being taken out of the box.
TJ Bell started Saturday by being the only driver in the field not to take a qualifying time. By lap 12, the No. 50 car took its first spin of the afternoon in turn 14, bringing out the first caution of the race. Lap 33 saw Bell bring out another yellow, and this time the spin was for good; the No. 50 car ended up deep in a gravel trap with a broken rear end and never returned to the track. The 37th place finish was Bell and the No. 50 team’s worst of the season.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Kenny Habul Habul hadn’t raced since 2006, and hadn’t made a Nationwide Series start in his career. Still, even a mid-race visit into the gravel trap in turn 5 (apparently caused by locked up wheels or a soft brake pedal) couldn’t derail what ended up being a strong weekend as a whole for Habul and the No. 75 team. Top 20 in happy hour, top 20 in qualifying, and able to rebound turned into a 17th place result that came out of nowhere. Welcome back to racing, Mr. Habul.
Start-and-parkers occupied 6 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $65,914 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored 2 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 2 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race and took home $52,243 in purse money.
172 of 602 starting positions occupied (28.6%)
$3,535,085 dollars won
7 of 14 trophies collected (50%)
The Final Word
• The slobberfest over Danica Patrick was in full effect with the ESPN broadcast booth on Saturday, with everyone ooing and awing over every pass she made on the track. And the collective anger that was heard when Jacques Villenueve spun her on the final lap was completely over the top considering the replays were crystal clear that the No. 22 car had wheel-hopped into the No. 7. This orgy needs to happen already, because this cross-network trend of grown men in the booth talking like they have a chance with NASCAR’s photogenic flavor of the week has got to stop.
• I might as well recycle language from my previous Nationwide Breakdowns at this track… USE…THE…F***ING…LOCAL…YELLOW…ALREADY. This track is four miles long, it takes literally minutes to get around the track. Stopping the race every time a piece of debris lands on the track or a car gets off course hundreds of feet from the racing surface makes no sense. Use a local yellow and let the event play out. Then again, I also liked Bristol racing with fewer yellows. I may be in the minority here.
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. remarked that he wished NASCAR would tackle a dirt track instead of these road courses for races. Hey NASCAR… why can’t we have both?