Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: 2011 Aaron’s 312 at Talladega

As Saturday’s race (April 16) went green during its second attempt at a green-white-checkers finish, every storyline of opportunity imaginable was present at the front of the field. Underdog and underrated drafter Mike Wallace was on the front row, Justin Allgaier had climbed back into position after earlier contact with the wall, Elliott Sadler remained the hottest driver on the circuit, a top-five finish all but a certainty.

It ended in a manner that Nationwide Series fans are sick of seeing; Kyle Busch went to victory lane, with underdog Wallace on his roof in turn 3 after trying to make a last-lap charge, a stellar afternoon gone to waste on the final lap. Busch rebounded from crash damage of his own and benefited from Wallace’s flip, which ended the final circuit in turn 3 before any of the pairs behind the Gibbs duo of Busch and Joey Logano could mount a final charge. Logano, Joe Nemechek, Brad Keselowski and Sadler rounded out the top five.

The race was much like the one seen earlier this season at Daytona, with the two-car drafting pairs seen from the drop of the green flag. The Nationwide C0T however proved much more difficult to bump draft with, as the vast majority of incidents seen on Saturday were direct results of pushes entering turn 3.

Incoming points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. found trouble on lap 69 and finished 38th, his worst finish and first DNF of 2011. His struggles yielded the points lead to Jason Leffler, who, following Talladega, enjoys a two-point lead over teammate Allgaier.

Worth Noting

The Good

Allgaier‘s debut with Turner Motorsports turned out to be a lackluster 27th-place result back at Daytona, a result far removed from a top-five qualifying effort. Talladega was looking to be more of the same, as Allgaier slapped the backstretch wall exiting turn 2 early after contact with Clint Bowyer.

However, avoiding much of the attrition that would plague the field for the second half of Saturday’s event, Allgaier delivered a clutch seventh place finish that was not only a career best and his best finish at any level of stock car racing at ‘Dega since he won the track’s 2008 ARCA race, but a clutch result that allowed the 2009 Rookie of the Year to capitalize on points leader Stenhouse’s troubles. Allgaier now sits a mere two points out of the lead heading into Nashville, a track where he won a pole and scored two top fives in 2010. Who says escaping Talladega unscathed is as good as it gets?

Scott Wimmer rebounded from falling out of the Top 30 in owner points last weekend to score a season best 12th-place finish that locked him back in as the Nationwide Series heads to Nashville, the site of his last series win back in 2008. Sadler scored his fourth consecutive top-five finish for the first time since 1997, moving up to third in points.

Sam Hornish Jr. was involved in just about every incident that Talladega had in store for the Nationwide field this weekend, including being spun by his teammate less than 10 laps from the finish, and yet he still dug a top-15 finish out for his No. 12 car. Driving a machine back through the pack that by race’s end did not even have a rear bumper for competitors to push on, Hornish scored a career-best finish at any level of NASCAR on the plate tracks and his best finish in a Nationwide car since 2008.

Hornish was fast and stubbornly refused to go away all day Saturday, exactly what he needs to be doing to preserve any hopes of a career in stock cars.

The Bad

Promising days for all three Wallaces in Saturday’s field all went out the window over the course of 300-plus miles. Steve Wallace proved to be a potent drafting partner along with teammate Michael Annett, but was caught up in the big one on lap 88 as 20 other cars were involved in some capacity. Kenny Wallace led laps and was a top-10 fixture for much of the race, but that result went up in smoke as Wallace reported, well, smoke, in his cockpit. The final results page listed electrical failure as the culprit, but regardless a top-10 finish ended outside the top 25 for the No. 09 team.

And then there’s Mike Wallace. The eldest of the Wallace trio is no stranger to underdog finishes in restrictor-plate races (winning in Nationwide competition at Daytona for the Biagi Brothers in 2004, along with top-10 finishes at Daytona in Cup for Morgan McClure Motorsports and Phoenix Racing), and was in position to score another one, leading as the field went green for its second GWC attempt.

Wallace, however, ended the afternoon on his roof, getting flipped entering turn 3 as he tried to shift from the bottom to top lane. Wallace finished 18th and garnered more TV time for his No. 01 squad in one afternoon then they had enjoyed all season, but this race was very close to being so much more.

Tri-Star Motorsports had problems beyond Jeff Green start-and-parking yet another unsponsored No. 44 car. Mike Bliss, who led the race at one point as Kyle Busch’s drafting partner, not only was spun by Logano on lap 55, but also got caught up in the Big One on lap 88. The same can be said for teammate Eric McClure, who in trying to dodge the wreck went to the outside on the backstretch and came within a car length of dodging the wreck entirely… but ultimately was sandwiched into the wall by spinning traffic. Both drivers finished outside the top 25.

The Ugly

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enduring a 38th-place finish, his first DNF of the season and losing the points lead seems injury enough. But to add insult to it was the nature of his wreck; following drafting partner Allgaier, Stenhouse drove across the nose of teammate Trevor Bayne seemingly blind to the fact that he was racing around other cars, slamming hard into the backstretch wall.

It was perhaps the first time this season that Stenhouse looked in 2010 form, following his partner with no awareness of his on-track surroundings. A compelling illustration of just how stupid this whole two-by-two racing nonsense is, Stenhouse now heads to the track that nearly ended his career last season, Nashville, needing to prove just how far he has come as a driver.

Underdog Performer of the Race: Timmy Hill. The current points leader for the Nationwide Rookie of the Year crown is in challenging situation to put it lightly: racing unsponsored for a backmarker team as an 18-year-old with only a handful of even ARCA starts to his credit. Not only did Hill finally garner a mention on ESPN this Saturday, avoiding wreck after wreck to finish in the top 15 for the first time as a Nationwide Series driver. Bringing home his car in one piece was an accomplishment in itself for a driver that’s about as green as they come in major stock car racing.

Ill-Gotten Gains

Start-and-parkers occupied four of the 43 spots in Saturday’s field, taking home $57,434 in purse money.

Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored five of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied nine of the 43 spots in the field and took home $223,138 in purse money.

Year-to-Date

97 of 298 starting positions occupied (32.6%)
$2,520,008 won
7 of 7 trophies collected (100%)

Who You Didn’t See

Frankly, with the number of incidents that marred Saturday’s race, it’s hard to say who was and wasn’t covered over 312-plus miles. But a few names worth mentioning. Blake Koch was mentioned only in passing and never shown on TV despite having a sponsor and finishing a career-best 16th. Danny Efland wasn’t mentioned at all, despite driving for the same No. 52 team that somehow found a way to the track after wrecking at Texas one week ago.

Dennis Setzer was running at the finish and never mentioned in any capacity. Morgan Shepherd fell out less than 25 laps short of the finish, fell out of the Top 30 in owner points and never was mentioned short of an unscheduled pit stop on lap 4. Tim George Jr. was only mentioned in passing as being involved in the lap 88 Big One. And take away their involvement in wrecks, and Jennifer Jo Cobb, Derrike Cope and McClure were never mentioned.

The Final Word

  • Here’s all that needs to be said about the new points system and what it’s done to the NNS title chase. Leffler was scarcely even seen over the course of a three-hour broadcast despite starting in the top 10, finished third on his team in 15th and took the points lead. Not much of a story to compete with the rest of the mayhem and one that didn’t garner any TV time for the series regulars.
  • I said it after Daytona, I’ll say it again. At least when the plate tracks all produced big packs of cars, drivers could at least control their own destinies within the pack. Here, the vast majority of the afternoon’s cautions were the results of a pusher dumping their partner, and yet no one got angry for being dumped, instead shrugging it off because their competitors were so very necessary to having a prayer of being competitive. Logano spun both Bliss and teammate Brian Scott. Stenhouse spun Hornish, as did Keselowski. Scott spun Annett. Cars communicating with each over the radio, absolutely dependent on each other until the very final pass to have a shot at victory, is not fun to watch.
  • If the choice is between packs and pairs, give me packs. If it’s between the pairs and not racing at Daytona or Talladega, pull them off the schedule. There’s plenty of bullrings out there for individual drivers and teams to settle their own fates on.

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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