Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 at Phoenix

If Kyle Busch made it look easy leading 107 of the 150 laps run Friday night (Feb. 250 en route to winning the Truck Series race at Phoenix, it’s hard to find an appropriate phrase to describe what he did Saturday. Winning the pole and leading every single one of Saturday’s 200 circuits, Busch scored his 44th career Nationwide Series victory while becoming the first driver to lead a Nationwide race from green to checkers since Dale Earnhardt Jr. led all 100 laps at Daytona in July 2003.

Busch proved absolutely untouchable all afternoon long, especially on restarts. It wasn’t until the race’s final restart on lap 171 that Busch was finally challenged, as Carl Edwards utilized an air pressure adjustment to charge alongside the No. 18. Edwards was able to get wheel-to-wheel with Busch with around 20 to go, but was unable to make the pass in time to take advantage of his tires.

Edwards settled for second, with Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Reed Sorenson rounding out the top five. Sorenson’s second consecutive top-five finish marked his eighth consecutive top-15 finish dating back to Fontana last fall, and moved him into the Nationwide Series points lead (previous leader Landon Cassill did not race on Saturday).

Saturday’s 200-miler also revealed one of the first apparent development challenges for the new Nationwide racecars, as brake packages heated up to the point of melting beads on tires; top-10 fixtures Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski both endured hard wrecks thanks to tire failures.

Worth Noting

The Good

One year ago, mired in the clutches of a horrendous start to his rookie season, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showed his first signs of life as a Nationwide regular one year ago in the spring race at Phoenix, finishing ninth after crashing out of three of the first five previous races of 2010. One year later, the No. 6 driver and team still have the ‘Diamond in the Desert’s’ number.

Sporting a blank white Mustang (Roush Fenway Racing’s entire fleet was unsponsored Saturday, sans Ford decals on Edwards’s machine), Stenhouse was a fixture in and around the top 10 from the drop of the green flag, demonstrating both patience and rhythm that were often lacking in last season’s campaign. A methodical late-race charge that saw the No. 6 patiently setting up cars for the pass instead of forcing three-wide situations landed Stenhouse a seventh-place finish, a second consecutive top-10 finish that has the driver formerly on the hot seat second in Nationwide points.

Sorenson and Jason Leffler picked up right where they left off at Daytona for Turner Motorsports, delivering fifth- and 11th-place results that positioned two of the new organization’s drivers in the top three in points, with Sorenson additionally securing the highest-finishing position for a Nationwide Series regular at Phoenix.

And joining that party this weekend was Justin Allgaier, who shook off a disappointing debut with his new team to come home eighth, equaling a career-best finish at the 1-mile track. The transition to Chevrolet and new ownership for the former Braun Racing camp has apparently done very little, if anything, to dislodge the organization’s unofficial title as the premier Nationwide Series independent operation.

Hermanator fans may have a whole lot to cheer about in 2011 if Saturday was any indication. Kenny Wallace remarked over his team’s radio early in the event that “his car was hauling,” and boy it was. Moving steadily forward from his 18th-place starting position all afternoon, Wallace brought home a top-10 finish (10th) in only his second start with the RAB Racing team, his first in Nationwide competition since Iowa back in 2009 and first at the Phoenix International Raceway since 2001. To put that in perspective, RAB Racing’s No. 09 car did not score a top-10 finish on an oval track in 2010.

The Bad

Bayne may have had a hard time finding victory lane at Daytona one week ago, but one thing he has not had a hard time locating in Phoenix has been PIR’s retaining wall. After pounding the fence on his first lap of Cup practice on Friday, Bayne saw a sure top-10 run in Saturday’s race evaporate thanks to a cut-down tire on lap 165 that left his Mustang a mangled mess. The product of excessive brake heat caused Bayne to fall out of the top 10 in points following the wreck. The agony and the ecstasy don’t always come in that order in stock car racing.

Mike Wallace had to endure much of his afternoon driving with massive sway bar issues; the problem was so pronounced, the naked eye could see Wallace’s No. 01 machine trying to roll over as it entered a corner. Finishing a distant 26th by race’s end, Wallace is now riding a stretch of four consecutive results outside the top 25 dating back to Phoenix last year.

Jennifer Jo Cobb didn’t have to worry about making the field this weekend, as only 40 cars showed up to make an attempt. Still, qualifying proved to be a significant issue for the No. 79 team, as Cobb lost control of her machine doing weaves exiting the pits to heat her tires, sending her Ford into the inside retaining wall and crushing in the right front fender of the car.

Though Cobb was able to take the green flag, she was woefully off the pace all afternoon long, finishing the afternoon 38 laps down. It wasn’t that long ago that Cobb was contemplating running a reduced Truck schedule in an attempt to maximize resources; now, running full-time for a team that start-and-parked only a few races last season while running rental equipment, one of the Truck Series’ feel-good stories in 2010 looks to be in way over her head.

The Ugly

Back to that whole 40 cars showing up to make an attempt thing. ESPN’s broadcast did affirm that it was the first short field that the Nationwide Series had seen since 42 cars took the green flag at Fontana in Feb. 2008, but that didn’t tell the full story; Saturday was the first time fewer than 41 cars attempted a Nationwide Series race since 39 cars took the green at Watkins Glen…in July 2001.

Even uglier was the number of racecars among those 40 that had no sign of sponsorship on their quarterpanels, but more on that later. At least with short fields, NASCAR is taking a hit in the wallet alongside the Nationwide teams for a change.

Underdog Performance of the Race: Josh Wise. The No. 39 team only made three Nationwide Series starts in 2010, including none in CoT races, before making the jump to a wider schedule this year. And on Saturday, they performed admirably after having one of their race cars demolished in a vicious accident at Daytona one week ago. Wise, driving for another underfunded team this season, scored an 18th-place finish for a team that didn’t crack the top 30 even once one year ago, notching a career-best finish at PIR in the process.

Ill-Gotten Gains

Start-and-parkers occupied five of the 40 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $49,060 in prize money. (Note: In addition to these five, both Morgan Shepherd and Darryl Harr disappeared from the running just after halfway, begging the question if the two teams are running half races to secure additional bonus money.)

Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored five of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied seven of the 40 spots in the field and took home $228,433 in prize money.

Year to Date

24 of 83 starting positions occupied
$928,087 won
2 of 2 trophies collected

Who You Didn’t See

Mike Bliss, Jeremy Clements, Charles Lewandoski, Wise, Scott Wimmer, Eric McClure, Robert Richardson, Blake Koch and Derrike Cope were all entries that ran the distance Saturday and were not mentioned in any way on ESPN’s broadcast, except in a few instances as identified lapped traffic being passed. That accounts for nine of 35 entries that didn’t start-and-park, or 25.7% of the field.

In addition, Michael Annett, Mike Wallace, Shepherd, Shelby Howard, Timmy Hill, Harr and Cobb were all only mentioned in passing, with cars being shown on TV only if involved in an incident or being lapped. That equals seven of 35 distance entries, or 20% of the field.

45.7% of the field in total was not covered or only mentioned in passing.

Parting Shots

  • Debris Cautions Fix Nothing – The first caution flag of Saturday’s race flew for debris on lap 54, as Kyle Busch was in the midst of driving off into the sunset. The debris was never shown on TV. Still, the caution bunched up the field, erased Busch’s enormous lead… and did absolutely nothing to spice up an event where the No. 18 really was that much better than the rest of the field. Some days, there’s a car that’s just that good and Saturday was one of them, no matter the wishes of the tower.
  • Cup Cars for Truck Money – That’s the adage former Nationwide owner Brian Keselowski coined speaking to Frontstretch over the course of 2010 to describe the ever-going purse cuts impacting NASCAR’s AAA ranks as they attempted to transition to a CoT, and the score sheets at Phoenix reflected just that. With the expenses of building and developing this new generation of racecar, last place in this event payed out under $10,000. While this has long been common in the Truck ranks, it’s also the first time last place in a Phoenix Nationwide Series race has paid under five figures… ever. Good luck enticing owners and entries to run a new racecar with that kind of paycheck.
  • Another Repave to Dread – Just as the repave at Daytona proved to mean nothing but a track that didn’t require a dialed-in handling package and tires that refused to wear, it’s hard to imagine a repave at Phoenix is going to do any favors to the on-track action at the facility. Saturday’s racing action was not bad sans the snoozer up front, with drivers able to go above and below the yellow line and utilize every square of inch the asphalt available between the retaining walls, leading to unpredictable racing lines throughout. A grippier tire didn’t hurt things either. For crying out loud, unless there were chunks of PIR coming up that two hours of TV coverage chose to ignore (and granted, stranger things have happened), leave the worn out asphalt alone. It’s called character and it makes for good racing.
  • This Isn’t the Showroom – It’s a pretty widespread consensus that the closer resemblance the new Nationwide Series cars have to their stock counterparts is a positive. Where those similarities are supposed to end though, is the paint job. Yet, when the field took the green at Phoenix, there were a lot of cars out there sporting plain color paint schemes minus any sort of corporate signage. And it wasn’t just the backmarkers either; Roush Fenway Racing had two unsponsored cars making laps (and running in the top 10 for that matter), while Wimmer’s Key Motorsports entry was also blank. Not enough money available to win, not enough cars to fill the fields for TV… doesn’t seem to be a sound business model. And if the series’ model makes no sense, who’s going to put their business on it?
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