Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 O’Reilly 300 at Texas

Though a mid-race wreck took Kyle Busch out of contention early under the lights at Texas, another Sprint Cup regular made sure to lead boatloads of laps and utterly dominate another Nationwide Series event in Fort Worth. Leading 169 of the 200 circuits and not being seriously challenged after taking the lead on lap 110 (only Michael Annett and Brian Scott led during a cycle of green-flag stops during that stretch), Carl Edwards easily defended his race win from last fall, scoring Ford’s first W after switching to their new CoT Mustang.

Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top-five finishers Friday night (April 9).

Though practice sessions on Thursday and Friday saw all three of the Roush Fenway Racing entries near the top of the charts, both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne faded as the night unfolded, both fighting ill-handling racecars that left them non-factors for the win while Edwards drove away on a rail.

Though Keselowski closed to within a few car lengths during the final run to the checkers before fading himself, the only car that seemed to have the horses to keep up with the No. 60 this night was that of Kyle Busch. Busch’s night ended on lap 88, however, when Tim Schendel cut a right-front tire in turn 1 and collected Busch trying to save his car.

Though an eighth-place result was far removed from what Stenhouse and the No. 6 team wanted out of the weekend, dropping through the field after topping the charts all through practice, the top 10 did allow the Roush prospect to maintain the Nationwide Series points lead, gaining ground on Jason Leffler, who finished 15th. Sadler closed the gap on the top three in the standings after running fifth, his third consecutive top-five finish and highest among Nationwide regulars.

Worth Noting

The Good

It’s amazing what a solid visit to Bristol Motor Speedway can do for Sadler, who – on the heels of another top-five run this weekend – is now the hottest driver on the Nationwide circuit. On an evening that saw Stenhouse, Bayne and a plethora of contenders for the Nationwide crown verbally upset with their ill-handling cars, Sadler’s veteran composure shone through for the No. 2 team, yielding a fifth-place finish that was the driver’s best in NNS competition at the Great American Speedway since 2005.

With Kevin Harvick Incorporated’s No. 33 car also scoring a top-five finish this weekend, the operation’s NNS outfit is firing on all eight cylinders and with the team’s veteran driver now on a hot streak heading into a wildcard Talladega race and a standalone event at Nashville the No. 2 is a solid bet to be the first NNS regular to find victory lane in 2011.

Although Sadler deserves accolades for his third consecutive top five, Justin Allgaier put up a whale of a fight to prevent him from scoring it. Allgaier snapped a streak of two consecutive finishes outside the top 10 with a sixth-place result Friday night, an ending all the more solid for the No. 31 team in that it allowed both driver and crew chief Jimmy Elledge to improve over the course of the event (Allgaier nearly fell out of the top 15 in the early going).

With the strength displayed by Roush’s No. 6 team and Sadler’s recent surge, chemistry between last season’s unofficial Nationwide champ and Elledge will have to develop in a hurry to keep them in the title hunt. Friday night showed they’re getting close.

Allgaier’s Turner Motorsports teammate Reed Sorenson was finally able to stop the bleeding after a stretch of three consecutive finishes outside the top 10 dropped the No. 32 team from the points lead to fifth. Coming home seventh Saturday night, Sorenson scored his third consecutive top 10 at Texas; more importantly, he stayed in the thick of the points with his closest competition, making up ground on Stenhouse and Leffler while minimizing losses to Allgaier and Sadler.

Sorenson earned a full-time ride in the No. 32 thanks to consistency that saw him rack up 21 top 10s in a limited schedule last season. Getting back to seventh-place finishes shows this squad hasn’t lost that yet.

The Bad

It certainly appears that this new Nationwide Series car is taxing ML Motorsports. One of the most solid part-time campaigners of the past two seasons with Shelby Howard driving the No. 70, Friday night saw Howard retire 24 laps short of the finish with suspension issues in 30th place. It was the exclamation point on a tough weekend, an example of how difficult 2011 has been after qualifying outside the top 20 for the fifth consecutive event.

The qualifying stats are telltale themselves; it’s the first time dating back to the start of his tenure with ML back in 2009 that Howard has gone five consecutive starts without a top-20 time trial effort. But the the finish was also the fifth of five races in 2011 that also saw the No. 70 team fail to crack the top 20 in the finishing order after a 2010 campaign that yielded eight such results.

Further, it also marked the ninth time in nine attempts with the new car that ML has failed to crack the same top 20. It’s about as textbook a case as there is out there to demonstrate just how much development this new racecar actually needs… and the reality of what a smaller race team can do with it.

Morgan Shepherd‘s No. 89 car saw a stretch of three consecutive races run the distance snapped on Friday, with a listed engine failure sidelining them after only 23 laps. Coming on the same weekend that saw the team’s start-and-park No. 55 of Brett Rowe miss the field entirely, it was at best an unfortunate mechanical failure bringing a premature end to the squad’s race weekend.

At worst, without the revenue from the second car, the No. 89 didn’t have the dollars to run 300 miles. That’s pure speculation on this writer’s part, but it’s worth noting that since Daytona, Rowe had made every race… meaning those dollars had been there, every race, until this weekend.

Scott Wimmer‘s engine failure was well documented during ESPN’s telecast (by Key Motorsports standards, anyway – they actually got shown on TV this weekend), and was a disastrous result on two fronts. One, it marked the third time in six races so far this year that the No. 40 car has retired with a failed motor. Second, the 33rd-place result dropped Wimmer and the Key team out of the Top 30 in owner points, leaving them and their struggling motor program to race their way into the show at Talladega. It’s safe to say this bunch will be paying close attention to this weekend’s entry list.

Anyone watching the scoring ticker as the race wore down would have noted that Jeff Green took Eric McClure‘s place behind the wheel of the No. 14 for the final stretch of the event (he start-and-parked his own No. 44 entry after two laps) and would have been waiting all night for ESPN to explain the driver swap, which they never did.

McClure’s car earlier in the race had started smoking thanks to a failed fuel pump seal (the team reported that the part failure was officially a “leaking fuel pump cable adapter),” and fumes filled the cockpit before McClure was able to get the car to the garage. The driver reported feeling ill and dizzy from the chemicals as the team made repairs, prompting NASCAR to ask the No. 14 team to find another driver to finish the event. Green brought the car home a distant 31st.

The Ugly

While ESPN’s broadcast crew couldn’t spend enough time describing how nice a job Edwards did avoiding disaster and how unfortunate it was for Kyle Busch to get wrecked as a result of Tim Schendel‘s blown tire on lap 88, there was no such attention paid to the driver of the No. 52 unfortunate enough to actually cut the tire down and wreck his own racecar.

While ESPN’s pit reporters were visibly seen talking to Joe Gibbs Racing PR reps during the race broadcast about when they’d be able to speak to Kyle (and presumably waiting by the No. 18 hauler for said remarks), nobody bothered to track down Schendel in the garage to get his take on what happened. No one bothered to note how unfortunate it was for Means Racing, who already had to borrow a car simply to race after a practice crash at Daytona earlier this season, to have another one of their cars suffer heavy damage.

That’s an ugly state of affairs there. Sure, it sucks that Carl was deprived of another Buschwhacker to race against and it sucks that Busch was unable to go for another minor-league trophy, and it sucks for a multimillion dollar giant in Joe Gibbs Racing that they have to fix a car now. But they’ll all be back next week. That’s not such a sure thing for the No. 52 bunch. Then again, apparently the No. 52 doesn’t make for very good TV.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Sam Hornish Jr. It’s hard to classify a Penske Racing entry as an underdog, but Hornish’s current situation is certainly befitting of the title. A driver demoted from a full-time Cup ride to a 10-race Nationwide Series slate, Hornish was back in a stock car for the first time since Daytona two months ago this weekend. Overcoming a vibration and working with a crew that all have other full-time positions within the Penske Racing organization, Hornish kept his nose clean and finished 16th, his best NASCAR result ever at Texas.

For a driver who was all but forced into a Cup ride while trying to learn stock cars at the wishes of sponsorship, runs like Friday night are solid examples of driver development. Whether they’ll translate into a job, though, remains to be seen.

Ill-Gotten Gains

Start-and-parkers took seven of the 43 spots in Friday’s field, taking home $103,419 in purse money.

Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored five of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied nine of the 43 spots in the field and took home $282,838 in purse money.

Year to Date

84 of 255 starting positions occupied (32.9%)
$2,296,870 won
6 of 6 trophies collected (100%)

Who You Didn’t See

David Starr, Blake Koch, Shelby Howard, Jeremy Clements, Danny O’Quinn, Mike Bliss and McClure were all entries that did not start-and-park Friday and were not mentioned in any capacity during ESPN’s telecast. Further, Shepherd was only mentioned in passing and was never confirmed as an engine failure or start-and-park, Timmy Hill was only mentioned as giving way to the leaders once and both Jennifer Jo Cobb and Derrike Cope were mentioned only in passing for penalties or wave arounds, with no camera time given to their cars.

The driver swap between McClure and Jeff Green was not reported. That’s 11 of the 28 entries in the field Friday that did not start-and-park and were not wheeled by Cup regulars (39.3%).

In addition, Wimmer, Schendel and Robert Richardson were all only featured during the broadcast as a result of their involvement in on-track incidents. Despite being involved in a wreck that took out the second-place driver, Schendel was not interviewed. So if you’re scoring at home, that’s an additional three of the 28 entries in the field that didn’t start-and-park or Buschwhack (10.7%).

How does that total out? 50.0% of the field that didn’t start-and-park or field a Cup driver was not mentioned or mentioned in passing on Friday.

Parting Shots… On Who You Didn’t See

  • The McClure/Green driver swap went unreported. It doesn’t matter where the entry is running, a driver change going unreported, especially in a series where stories such as Cobb’s start-and-park drama at Bristol or the Matt Carter/Doug Taylor feud at Charlotte back in 2009 have played out in the garage during race conditions, is a complete and material failure on the part of ESPN to broadcast a Nationwide Series event.
  • Richardson’s team, despite the driver’s spin on lap 68, moved into a locked-in position in the Nationwide Series field thanks to Wimmer’s engine troubles.
  • 2008 Rookie of the Year O’Quinn finished 30th, the first race he’s run the distance in Nationwide competition since Bristol last August.
  • Bliss finished 19th and maintained a top-10 position in the points despite lacking a sponsor.
  • For crying out loud, Starr, a Texas native, didn’t even get a shout out on Friday night. Come on!

Parting Shots

  • Leffler’s 15th-place finish wasn’t bad by any stretch, but it a) lost the Nationwide Series veteran more ground on the points leader and b) marked the first time in 2011 he finished off the lead lap. It does speak well of the Nationwide Series title chase this season that a top 15 isn’t safe.
  • That said, there was an episode about two-thirds of the way into the race telecast where a look at the Nationwide Series points as they ran was cut off to go to commercial. Problem is, that’s consistent with the role of the points this year. With the championship leaders seldom contending for the actual race wins, they’re not part of the story unfolding on screen. The move to a Nationwide-only points system has, surprise, done nothing to garner the regulars more attention; if anything, their exploits are becoming more irrelevant than ever before. Just ask the 50% above.

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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