Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas

After an eventful race both on the track and in the pits had removed the day’s fastest cars in Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards from competition, the white flag flew over Brad Keselowski, who appeared ready to shake off two consecutive DNFs and damage incurred in practice Thursday (March 4) by scoring his first Nationwide win since Gateway last October.

Keselowski’s tires had other plans. A blown Goodyear entering turn 1 coming to the checkers sent the No. 22 Dodge into the fence, leaving the door wide open for Mark Martin, who spent much of the race’s final run saving fuel, to extend his all-time lead in Nationwide wins to 49, holding off Turner Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier coming to the checkered flag. Keselowski, Danica Patrick and Trevor Bayne rounded out the top five.

The early stages of the event were dominated by Busch, who a race-high 84 laps before spinning himself out on the frontstretch apron on lap 131, tagging the inside retaining wall. The race’s final green flag run saw Edwards and Denny Hamlin running away from the field late before fuel strategy came into play. While the vast majority of the field was forced to pit inside 20 to go to top off their tanks, the top-five finishers all either were in the clear or stretched their fuel to the finish, leaving the two leading Cup contenders as well as Roush Fenway driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to finish at the back end of the top 10.

Reed Sorenson maintained the series points lead on the heels of a disappointing 11th-place finish (Sorenson’s No. 30 car was a fixture in the top 10 until late-race pit stops), but saw the margin narrow to two points over second-place Stenhouse.

Worth Noting

The Good

Two years ago, Allgaier‘s debut Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas was the first showcase of just what the 2008 ARCA champion could do with NASCAR’s big boys. This Saturday was another coming-out party, one that showed just what Allgaier’s going to be capable of doing with Turner Motorsports’ backing. With over 100 sponsor representatives trackside for the Vegas event, Allgaier delivered a stout runner-up performance that was tops for Nationwide regulars in the event, as well as his best finish since winning at Bristol last spring.

Back-to-back top-10 finishes following a disappointing opener at Daytona have Allgaier back into the top five in points. With Turner teammates Sorenson and Jason Leffler also in the top five in points, it’s become readily apparent that last season’s ownership transfer has done nothing to slow the Nationwide Series’ premier independent team.

Fuel mileage did turn a top-10 run for Patrick into a fourth-place result, but there was no fluke to what was easily her best performance at any level of stock car racing to date. Working at a methodical pace all event along and keeping her No. 7 machine out of harm’s way through a field full of disparity in speeds, Patrick scored the highest-ever finish for a woman in Nationwide Series history.

ESPN’s broadcast honed in on her pass of Bayne for several laps, illustrating a No. 7 team that has figured out how to coach their celebrity driver. Patrick’s run was more notable in that she ran circles around teammate Aric Almirola, who finished off the lead lap and was a non-factor all afternoon. Praise for this run is well-deserved, but Bristol will tell the tale of just how much progress the No. 7 team and driver have made.

Though teammate Bayne used fuel strategy to top his teammate Stenhouse on the final scoring pylon, it was Stenhouse that delivered a show-stopping performance for Roush Fenway Racing on this Saturday. After delivering his best qualifying effort since ORP last summer, Stenhouse proved early on to be the only Nationwide regular capable of running with Kyle and Carl, visibly frustrating Busch (who made apparently deliberate contact with the No. 6 in turn 2 at one point) early in the event as he battled side-by-side with him for position.

Though a late-race pit stop relegated him to eighth in the final running order, Stenhouse still scored his fifth consecutive top-10 finish dating back to Phoenix last November, and closed the points gap with leader Sorenson headed into Bristol in two weeks. Just as with Patrick, Bristol will be a true litmus test as to whether Stenhouse will be a 1.5-mile contender or a contender week after week this year; he has never cracked the top 20 in his career at the bullring.

Kenny Wallace. Top 10 in the No. 09 car. Enough said.

The Bad

While the TV time may have been good for sponsors IHOP and Eagle Convenience Stores, Donnie Neuenberger‘s third NASCAR outing of the 2011 season was certainly not one of the prouder moments for MacDonald Motorsports or the No. 81 team.

Neuenberger, who already earned the ire of a number of drivers and race fans in Daytona Beach after causing a devastating crash under yellow in the season-opening Camping World Truck Series race, spun not once but twice of his own volition, once on each end of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday afternoon. Though he avoided contact with the wall both times, the day ended with a 26th-place finish, 11 laps down. Sad thing is, those spins marked the first real TV coverage the longtime No. 81 operation has gotten this season.

Josh Wise made a name for himself last year driving as compliment to Patrick in the No. 7 car, quietly able to keep a car in one piece and bring it home. That steady hand hasn’t delivered the same results for Go Green Racing’s No. 39 team, as for the second time in three weeks Wise’s day ended early with a torn-up racecar. And unlike Daytona, Saturday’s troubles fell square on the driver. Only four laps into the 300-miler, Wise snapped loose on the exit of turn 4; though he saved the car and kept it off the wall, Wise ended up driving his Ford smack through the infield grass.

And upon making contact with the paved oval in the infield grass, his Mustang lifted off the ground and landed hard enough to jar the front end of his car loose from the the passenger cab of the chassis. Though the team attempted to use bearer bond to secure the body, Wise was only able to complete 10 laps before parking his machine, making a departure earlier than even a number of start-and-parkers in the field. Two wrecked CoTs in three weeks isn’t a sustainable track for a smaller Nationwide operation, especially not with Bristol on the horizon.

Though Steve Wallace turned heads with a solid run in the Daytona 500, the start of his Nationwide Series campaign has been anything but remarkable in 2011. After closing out the 2010 season with four consecutive top-15 finishes, Wallace has yet to score a single one this year, or even finish on the lead lap for that matter.

Though Saturday’s 16th-place result was his best of the season, for Wallace it didn’t come without scratches; coming off turn 2 on lap 137, Wallace made contact with Ryan Truex‘s No. 99, spinning himself out and doing damage to his own front end. On a date where teammate Michael Annett had some speed for Rusty Wallace Inc., the damaged car and lackluster result by Wallace was just that; further, Wallace still finds himself outside the top 10 in points headed into the season’s first off-weekend.

The Ugly

While Patrick’s top-five finish certainly was a high point for racing’s ladies (for crying out loud, it had Jamie Little saying emphatically saying “girl” throughout her post-race remarks), the other female in the field delivered a performance Saturday more in-line with Deborah Renshaw‘s 2002 performance at Lowe’s Motor Speedway that left Eric Martin dead.

Though she did nothing anywhere near as egregious as that wreck, Jennifer Jo Cobb was well behind the on-track chaos that saw Kyle Busch spin across the frontstretch grass on lap 131, yet still woefully failed to slow her car down in time and ended up bowling over Timmy Hill in the process. The only poetic justice was that Hill was able to continue while Cobb’s machine endured the heaviest damage. Cobb finished 31st, but more importantly, her No. 79 team is now down a car, and with Bristol likely to field a full set of Nationwide Series entries for the first time since Daytona, qualifying is going to be an issue for this team again as well.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Morgan Shepherd. They may call Las Vegas “Sin City,” but good deeds by Morgan Shepherd apparently paid off this weekend. At a Wal-Mart near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier in the week, Shepherd ended up assisting police officers chase down and detain a shoplifter in the parking lot.

The favor was returned on Saturday, as Shepherd came home 18th in the final running order despite suffering cosmetic damage to the front nose throughout the 200 laps run. His first top-20 finish since Gateway last October, it was Shepherd and the new two-car Faith Motorsports’ operation’s best showing of the 2011 season.

Ill-Gotten Gains

Start-and-parkers took eight of the 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $115,936 in prize money.

Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored four of the top 10 scoring positions, occupied eight of the 43 spots in the field and took home $235,455 in prize money.

Year to Date

40 of 126 starting positions occupied (31.7%)
$1,279,478 won
3 of 3 trophies collected (100%)

Who You Didn’t See

Scott Wimmer, Carl Long, Shelby Howard, Jeremy Clements, Derrike Cope, Mike Wallace, Eric McClure, Mike Bliss, Kenny Wallace, Robert Richardson and Shepherd were all entries that did not start-and-park on Saturday and were either not mentioned in any way on ESPN’s telecast or were mentioned only in passing as lapped traffic. That accounts for 11 of 34 entries that did not start-and-park, or 32.3% of the field.

In addition, Hill, Leffler, Neuenberger and Cobb were all only mentioned in passing, with most having their cars only shown on TV if involved in an incident. That equals an additional four of 34 entries, or 11.7% of the field.

44.0% of the field was either not mentioned or mentioned only in passing.

Parting Shots

  • Danica’s Running Better, But at What Cost? It’s been a pretty dramatic turnaround in terms of performance for Patrick in the first three races of 2011, as she’s gone from an average finish of 34.0 to 11.7, with no DNFs. Meanwhile though, teammate Almirola, the only driver that JR Motorsports has contending for the 2011 title, has absolutely floundered; though seventh in points, the No. 88 has yet to crack the top 10 and has been an also-ran from the plate tracks to the intermediate to the flats. Which has to beg the question… for all the improvement behind the wheel, how much focus in the JRM shop has been put on that No. 7 car? For all the sponsor dollars from GT Vodka and TaxSlayer, there’s no question that Danica and GoDaddy are the cash cows keeping that organization afloat and so far, the No. 7 team is running like it. Can’t help but wonder if by the time Danica has to put NASCAR on the back burner to go run IRL, Almirola’s 2011 season will be already mailed in.
  • Technically, the Field was Full. Yes, there were 43 cars that took the green flag for Saturday’s event, up from the 40 that showed up at Phoenix. But to say that this was an improvement for the Nationwide field as a whole is not an easy argument to make. The new entries were; the No. 97 of NEMCO Motorsports, which ended up racing the distance only after the team start-and-parked its No. 87; Tim Andrews‘s No. 68 team, which start-and-parked after running all of their 2010 race dates to completion; and Charles Lewandoski‘s No. 03 team, which ended up being nothing more than R3 Motorsports’ making an at-the-track decision to roll out their back-up car for a few laps. Filling the field with start-and-parks does not a healthier field make.
  • Where are the Regulars? Nationwide regulars had their best showing of 2011 at Vegas in taking six of the top-10 finishing positions, but perhaps the most glaring stat of all reflecting their inability to compete with the double-dippers is in terms of laps led; they’ve led no laps since Daytona and only 11 of the 520 run this year. Not to mention the current points leader hasn’t led a lap all year. Weren’t Brian’s new points supposed to put a premium on winning?

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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