There is no type of track on the Nationwide Series circuit that has played host to Cup dominance of the AAA ranks more than the intermediate oval, and of those Charlotte’s fall race has seen more than its share. After all, this was the race back in 2006 that saw Kevin Harvick clinch the Nationwide Series crown as the first in a stretch of five consecutive double dippers to win the minor league title while driving full-time in Cup. And it’s been six long years, dating back to 2004, since a Nationwide regular visited Charlotte’s victory lane in the fall race. It’s a depressing set of recent memories to have of a return to NASCAR’s hometown.
That being said, anyone that remembers back to 2004 still remembers Mike Bliss’ late three-wide charge to victory that left both Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in the wake of the Rockwell Automation Chevrolet, long before Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide program became the powerhouse it is today. The unlikeliest of triumphs, on a day that Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch both were wielding Hendrick Chevrolets in the colors of the Spongebob Movie, the title sponsor of 2004′s 300-miler.
Nationwide fans in 2011 have been treated to four such unlikely wins over the course of this season. Heading into Charlotte, a race that will likely not be number five, it’s worth rewinding to the four most satisfying wins of this season.
*May 22, 2011 – John Deere Dealers 250*
A freaking Nationwide Series regular won a race! Ricky Stenhouse Jr. absolutely defied the standard practice of the Nationwide Series one year ago, somehow keeping his ride despite wrecking just about every car Roush Fenway Racing had in their shop. Now, not even midway through year two, he’s in victory lane.
To call Stenhouse‘s first career win Sunday at Iowa poetic would be understating it. To win, the 2010 Rookie of the Year held off teammate and full-time Buschwhacker Carl Edwards scarcely 12 hours removed from his win in the Sprint All-Star Race. What’s more, the win came at a track that short of Nashville was the home of Stenhouse’s worst effort from his tumultuous rookie season; the driver of the No. 6 car wrecked both of his team’s machines the last time the series tackled Iowa Speedway, then crashed the third car during the race.
But the 2011 edition out in corn country was a time to put those demons to rest. Stenhouse’s win marked the first of the season for a Nationwide Series regular, making Stenhouse the first non-Cup driver to win a NNS race since Boris Said took the checkers at Montreal in the summer of 2010.
*June 4, 2011 – STP 300*
With 25 laps to go, Carl Edwards stormed past race leader Elliott Sadler, seemingly poised to steal another Nationwide Series trophy on a standalone weekend. This time, the regulars were having none of that. Edwards ran out of gas on the backstretch coming to the checkered flag, allowing a hard-charging Justin Allgaier to pass him…only to run out of gas himself exiting turn 3. But with third-place driver Trevor Bayne having to nurse a nearly-empty fuel tank home himself, Allgaier was able to limp his Chevrolet across the stripe to score his second career Nationwide Series victory.
Allgaier’s victory marked the first race a Nationwide Series regular has won on a 1.5 mile oval since Mike Bliss won a rain-shortened event at Charlotte back in the spring of 2009, and also snapped a three-race win streak for Roush Fenway Racing.
The Nationwide Series regulars are, of course, meant to shine on standalone weekends. For Justin Allgaier, a win could not have come at a better time; the Illinois-native won not only at the facility he considers his home track, but also a track in close proximity to the headquarters of primary sponsor Brandt, who had a large contingent of representatives on hand Saturday night. The win was his first on an intermediate oval since he won the summer ARCA race at Pocono back in 2008.
*June 25, 2011 – Bucyrus 200*
When the yellow flag flew on lap 56 for Aric Almirola’s machine being stuck in a gravel trap after the afternoon’s third and final attempt at a green-white-checker finish, Justin Allgaier and crew celebrated the win over the radio. Then, disaster struck as the No. 31 team ran out of gas coming back to the line to take the checkers.
10 minutes and countless reviews later, Allgaier’s Turner Motorsports teammate Reed Sorenson returned to victory lane for the first time since 2007, handed the trophy after it was determined that Ron Fellows, who crossed the finish line first under the lap 56 yellow, passed Sorenson under yellow only because the No. 32 car had slowed to caution speed.
It was only a matter of time before Sorenson made his return to victory lane, but the odds of seeing that return happen on a daunting four-mile road course had to be considered slim by even the biggest Sorenson fans. Still, Saturday’s triumph was a full-circle moment for a driver whose career looked very uncertain just two seasons ago, losing a seat at Richard Petty Motorsports on the heels of disappointing on-track results and concern over missed sponsor appearances off the track. Now, leaving Wisconsin atop the Nationwide Series point standings and with full-time backing from Dollar General, Reed Sorenson left looking every bit the contender he was back in his early days with Chip Ganassi Racing.
*August 6, 2011 – US Cellular 250*
Roush Fenway Racing’s Mustangs had finished 1-2 four times this season prior to the night race at Iowa, so Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. beating Carl Edwards to the stripe wasn’t the most remarkable outcome statistically. But this finish was so much more. In a race that saw the two teammates trade paint and get hot under the collar for the second consecutive week, Stenhouse had nearly a second on Edwards heading into the final corner when his engine expired. Edwards, who had enough momentum to clear the No. 6 and steal the win, got caught up in the cloud of smoke and oil from the expired motor, slammed into the back of Stenhouse’s car, and in doing so secured the second career win for the current points leader.
For Stenhouse, a win meant not only a sweep of Iowa for the season, but a strong follow-up to an Indianapolis race that saw the No. 6 the class of the field. Not to mention that Stenhouse opted not to play big picture but take it to teammate Carl Edwards and come out on top. The winner’s points are nice, but that Stenhouse raced hard with Edwards, took exception to getting pushed around and aggressively stormed back to take the win is going to translate to a confidence boost that’s going to give him a lot more points down the road.
That did pan out, after all; Stenhouse leads the points with only four races to go.
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