The win will go down in the record books as belonging to Kyle Busch, but one Jason Ratcliffe deserved the trophy more than any other on this Saturday afternoon (March 26). For most of the 300 miles, Busch was a third-place car, unable to keep pace with the likes of Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. But during the final green-flag run to the checkers, Edwards and Harvick pitted early for four tires.
That was the plan for Busch until he came to pit road for his final stop inside of 25 to go, when crew chief Ratcliffe audibled and called for two tires. The call was masterful; the yellow didn’t fly and Busch won despite last-lap contact with the turn 2 wall, his third victory in the first five races in 2011.
It was a compelling conclusion to one of the raciest Nationwide Series events the Auto Club Speedway has ever played host to. The high groove was available and used frequently throughout the event, with the multiple grooves providing for side-by-side racing for much of the afternoon.
Edwards, Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top five. Stenhouse, who led laps and scored the highest finish a Nationwide regular driver has ever scored at ACS for Roush Fenway Racing, also took the points lead after all three full-time competitors for Turner Motorsports failed to crack the top 10 (Jason Leffler led that bunch, finishing 11th).
With five races in the books, the Top 30 in owner points for 2011 will now dictate qualifying starting in two weeks at Texas; the No. 40 of Key Motorsports is currently 31st, a point behind JD Motorsports’ No. 01 and MacDonald Motorsports’ No. 81 entries.
Though Edwards was the class of the field this Saturday afternoon, teammate Stenhouse heard nothing of it, blasting by the No. 60 in turns 3 and 4 on lap 99, leading 10 circuits before Edwards was finally able to run him back down. But coming to a track where his career-best finish prior was a 29th-place result, the top-five finish was one of the most visible demonstrations of the progress the sophomore driver has made on the Nationwide circuit.
Watching him methodically explore lanes through the corners and utilize momentum on exit, Stenhouse gave the Cup interlopers up front everything they could handle all afternoon. Now that his No. 6 team has the points lead, it very well may keep it for a while.
Teammate Trevor Bayne clawed his way back from 10th to sixth during the final green-flag run, also scoring a career-best result at Auto Club while also bucking 13 years of history that saw no driver for Roush Fenway Racing not racing full time in Cup post a top 10 for the organization in Nationwide competition at Fontana.
Sadler lived up to his words from last week at Bristol, stating that all his No. 2 team needed was one good race to get the 2011 season moving. This Saturday resulted in a second consecutive top-five finish, but it didn’t start off that way. Sadler struggled through qualifying with his No. 2 car, posting a starting position of 34th that was his worst time-trial effort in Nationwide competition since 2006.
Experience (that includes a Cup win at the facility in 2004) kicked in, as Sadler was the manifestation of “hard charger.” By race’s end, Sadler made sure that both KHI entries finished in the top five and left seventh in points, his title chances very much alive even after a slow start to the campaign.
The results were nothing to write home about, but longtime Nationwide operations Team Rensi and Means Racing both had their entries go the distance this weekend, marking the first time in 2011 that both teams were actually running at the finish.
Steve Wallace took himself out of contention before Saturday’s race had even had a chance to start. On lap 25, Wallace pushed up the track on the exit of turn 4, and attempting to avoid contact with Stenhouse’s No. 6 car, Wallace spun himself across the infield grass. With rains in the area earlier in the weekend, the wet grass and the drainage ditch that he hit in the infield did significant front end damage to the No. 66 Toyota that Wallace never recovered from; he finished the day seven laps down in 27th, his second consecutive finish outside the top 25 at Fontana.
Wallace has still yet to score a top-10 finish in 2011, the longest he’s gone without one to start a season since 2008.
Auto Club Speedway truly has been feast or famine for Jeremy Clements. The site of a 12th-place finish that was Clements’s best career finish until scoring his first ever top 10 at Gateway last October, ACS also saw Clements fail to qualify for the spring race a year ago, with a tire rub during qualifying sending a top-20 car in practice to the house.
This year, while qualifying wasn’t an issue (only 43 cars took time for a starting position), Clements and his No. 51 team found trouble for the first time this year. Running around the top 20, Clements tagged the turn 2 wall with an apparent blown tire on lap 93, a hit that knocked the rear axle out of the machine. The heavy damage and 35th-place result put an obvious damper on this Saturday, which saw the JCR team finally lock themselves into the Nationwide Series top 30.
The same could be said for MacDonald Motorsports, with Blake Koch, despite locking the No. 81 back into the Top 30, also slamming the turn 2 wall thanks to a tire failure, though for Koch and his sponsor Soul Surfer probably got more air time thanks to the wreck than it would have going the distance.
Jennifer Jo Cobb made more headlines than she ever has in her career last Saturday, refusing to follow her owner’s orders to start-and-park at Bristol. Much was made of Cobb coming to Fontana in a Rick Ware Racing entry this race weekend, but it was hardly a storybook day. Cobb spun out exiting turn 4 on lap 19 and completed only 38 of the 150 laps run before retiring from the event with “handling” issues. For all the coverage and hype, this was definitely a performance that fizzled.
Underdog Performer of the Race: JR Fitzpatrick. Not too long ago, it would have been inconceivable to call the No. 27 team, be it under the Baker/Curb Racing or Brewco Motorsports banner, an underdog operation. But with Fitzpatrick and his Schick sponsorship, the No. 27 team not only was able to run the distance for the first time since Daytona and only the second time this season, they also scored a 20th-place finish doing it.
That’s the first top-20 result the team has posted since Gateway last October, and more notably, it’s the longest it has taken the No. 27 to score its first top 20 of a Nationwide Series season since going full time back in 1999. It’s bittersweet to see the No. 27 actually racing, but also to see it reduced to celebrating top 20s.
Start-and-parkers took six of the 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $84,362 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored six of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied eight of the 43 spots in the field and took home $252,505 in purse money.
Year to Date
69 of 212 starting positions occupied (32.5%)
5 of 5 trophies collected (100%)
Who You Didn’t See
Kevin Conway, Ryan Truex, Michael Annett, Eric McClure, Scott Wimmer, Fitzpatrick, Kevin Lepage, Tim Andrews, Morgan Shepherd, Derrike Cope, Robert Richardson and Dennis Setzer were all entries that did not start-and-park on Saturday and were not mentioned or seen in any capacity during ESPN’s telecast.
In addition, Charles Lewandoski was only noted as a 25-year-old despite leading the race, Mike Wallace was only mentioned as being in Harvick’s way, Tony Raines was only mentioned as lap traffic and Timmy Hill was mentioned as being off the pace without a shot on camera. That’s 16 of the 37 entries that didn’t start-and-park (43.2%).
In addition, the only coverage of Steve Wallace, Koch, Clements and Cobb were all only mentioned as a result of being involved in on-track incidents. That accounts for an additional four of the 37 entries that didn’t start-and-park (10.8%)
54.0% of the field was either not mentioned or mentioned only in passing.
Fontana put on an entertaining race. The sky has fallen. Saturday’s 300-miler was an enjoyable event and with actual passing for the lead may well have been the best race of the season thus far. It’s a shame that ESPN has to be indicted for offering such a narrow cross section of coverage, because their through the field coverage of the top-15 cars was actually improved this go-around. If only there were 15-car fields, they’d be masters of their craft.
As well as Roush Fenway Racing ran at Auto Club, they in two ways demonstrated just what is wrong with the Nationwide Series. One, despite having rising stars Stenhouse and Bayne on the payroll, the only Mustang out of the Roush fleet carrying any sponsor decals was Edwards… and that money came from Ford.
Come on now, if you’re going to paint someone’s car develop some talent instead of stroking an ego. Secondly, there was a notable exchange on lap 90 that had ESPN’s reporters about to comment on how the Nos. 6 and 16 cars had no decals… only to cut to Harvick and Edwards battling for the lead. Story of the year(s).
Parting Shots… on Who You Didn’t See
- Wimmer lost a considerable amount of time in the pits over the second half of the race, finishing 35 laps down with a 34th-place result that dropped the No. 40 team out of the Top 30 in owner points.
- Conway, the 2010 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, ran his first full NASCAR race at any level, finishing a respectable 22nd in Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 (his other start was a start-and-park at Las Vegas).
- McClure finished 21st, his career-best result in nine starts at Auto Club Speedway.
- Andrews was running at the finish of a Nationwide Series race for the first time since 2009, scoring only the third top-30 finish of his career replacing Cobb.
- Seriously, what does it say when Annett and Truex can’t score some airtime?
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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