A night of complete dominance for Roush Fenway Racing that saw the team’s three cars lead 193 of the first 198 laps went up in smoke late at Lucas Oil Raceway on Saturday night. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards and Trevor Bayne all running 1-2-3 inside of 30 laps to go, each ran into trouble.
Edwards was busted during a late-race cycle of pit stops for visibly speeding on pit road exit, Bayne had his engine expire on lap 188 and Stenhouse, who led a career-high 189 laps was pushed from the lead on lap 198 by Brad Keselowski. The defending series champion drove hard into turn 3 and forced the No. 6 Ford towards the fence, driving off to score his second win of 2011.
Despite a few late-race yellows, the majority of Saturday’s Kroger 200 was the cleanest seen on the bullring in Clermont, Ind. in some time, with Stenhouse dominating for most of the evening. A slightly harder tire did keep failures to a minimum, without impacting the continual side-by-side racing that the Nationwide Series has enjoyed for years on the longtime venue’s racing surface.
Elliott Sadler found trouble late for the second race in a row after a spin on lap 199, allowing Stenhouse to retake the points lead. Reed Sorenson also bounced bad from handling woes early in the event to post a top-10 finish, allowing him to take second in standings, a mere three markers out of the lead.
It didn’t end up producing a win, but Stenhouse‘s performance on Saturday night made him the class of the field. Stenhouse not only led the vast majority of the laps run, his No. 6 team also proved astute in being able to adjust to the change from daylight to evening despite being miles ahead of the field. In the end, Keselowski didn’t beat Stenhouse and his team to win the race, he had to boot them out of the way. The best car did not win on Saturday night, but at least the driver took the points lead for his troubles.
They don’t give a trophy for the king of race weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway, but that award would have hands down gone to one James Buescher this weekend. Following up a third-place result at in Thursday’s ARCA race and a runner-up result Friday in Truck competition, Buescher ended up carrying the flag for Turner Motorsports on Saturday night as well. Driving quietly and methodically Saturday evening, Buescher came out of nowhere in the closing laps to secure a runner-up finish, a career-best and his first top-five result in Nationwide competition.
“Finally” is perhaps the word that can be used to describe Aric Almirola‘s recent stretch. Finally, the No. 88 team is showing the form that many expected it to when the former Truck Series regular was signed as the driver expected to return the team to the title contender it was with Keselowski behind the wheel.
Much like Buescher, Almirola took the silent road to the front at Lucas Oil Raceway, finishing fourth when the checkers finally flew while running circles around teammate Josh Wise and the No. 7 car. That marks three consecutive top-five finishes for the No. 88 team, the first such streak of the driver’s career. Almirola now sits comfortably in the top five in points with a shot at returning to victory lane no longer out of the question for JR Motorsports’ flagship in 2011.
Sorenson made something out of nothing by the end of Saturday night, finishing ninth after early runs in the race saw the No. 32 team fighting just to stay on the lead lap. Whatever the team did to adjust the car was corrrect, as Sorenson’s top 10 allowed him to maintain close contact with new points leader Stenhouse even on a night that the field took Roush Fenway Racing’s best shot.
Going the opposite direction in points is Sadler, whose Saturday got off to a bad start before the green even flew after a wreck in qualifying. Starting 42nd though, the No. 2 car mowed down backmarkers and was in the top 10 rather quickly despite the tight confines and traffic of this treacherous short track.
Sadler had himself in position to be smack in the middle of the Sorenson/Stenhouse points fight at night’s end, running in the top five with less than 10 laps to go, but that all went out the window two laps short of the finish when traffic sent the No. 2 car spinning; teammate Austin Dillon was collected in the incident as well. With the rear end of his machine flattened and the spoiler being dragged behind the car, Sadler’s charge from 42nd ended with a sour 16th-place result that saw him lose further ground in the title chase.
Justin Allgaier also had his luck run out very late in the going Saturday, derailing any momentum the No. 31 team seemed to have garnered after a strong showing at Nashville a week ago. Running in the runner-up position and poised to challenge for the win, what appeared to be a brake fire smoldering in the right-front wheel well of the No. 31 turned into a full-blown inferno, forcing the former ARCA champion to the garage area without completing the event. The 27th-place finish was Allgaier’s first finish outside the top 15 all season on a short track.
Trevor Bayne had a career-best Nationwide Series finish all but in the bag, and then had a motor blow on lap 188. Bayne’s “are you kidding me” reaction on the radio set it all.
It’s bad enough that on a track five-eighths of a mile long ESPN didn’t have one camera, fixed or roving, that was able to capture the start of what was an ugly wreck between Tim Andrews and Michael Annett in turn 3 on lap 175 (in post-incident remarks, Annett admitted he may have been too aggressive trying to pass Andrews, but expressed frustration over the No. 40 driver being so far off the pace and still on the track), but that doesn’t compare to just how nasty a crash this one was.
And not because the two were involved in a textbook incident at a facility where the top of the track is the preferred groove; one tried to force something on the low side and proved unable to make it work. Steve Wallace at the same time lost the rear end of his No. 66 Toyota entering turn 3, and ended up spinning smack into the stopped car of his teammate Annett.
The result was a violent collision that sent the back end of Wallace’s car airborne, a spin that only concluded after the No. 66 also slammed into the driver’s door of Andrews’s machine. Fortunately, all three drivers were uninjured in what was by far the most violent incident Lucas Oil Raceway saw this weekend.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Bliss. Bliss certainly played the role of the underdog on Saturday, going unmentioned and unnoticed outside of a brief mention in passing over the entire course of the evening’s race telecast. Despite this, Bliss brought his No. 19 car home 11th, his best finish of the 2011 season and highest result since a runner-up performace at Gateway last October. The end result was also the first lead-lap finish on a short track for the entire Tri-Star Motorsports organization this season.
Start and parkers occupied 11 of the 42 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $105,830 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored four of the top 10 scoring positions, occupied four of the 42 starting positions in the field and took home $85,436 in purse money.
271 of 894 starting positions occupied (30.3%)
18 of 21 trophies collected (85.7%)
Who You Didn’t See
Fain Skinner, Tim Schendel and Eric McClure all ran the distance on Saturday night and were not mentioned in any capacity during ESPN’s telecast. In addition, mentions only as lap traffic or position run were the only coverage offered to drivers Matt Frahm (though his name came up as lapped traffic three times), Mike Wallace, Blake Koch, Derrike Cope, Josh Wise, Timmy Hill, David Stremme, Bliss and Jeremy Clements. Andrews was interviewed after his role in the lap 175 crash that brought out the red flag, but that was his only coverage of the evening and it came well over three-quarters of the way into the event.
- Yes, Steve Wallace spun out, a development that made a bad wreck between Annett and Andrews worse. But the amount of overstatement the entire broadcast booth dedicated in their review of the incident to the role that Buescher and his love tap on the backstretch played in sending the No. 66 car into a spin was blatantly overstated.
- Just another example of why having Cup regulars in the field week after week sucks for the Nationwide Series, even if they can’t race for points anymore. There’s something to be said as to why Keselowski was able to bowl all over points leader Stenhouse when the race was on the line. Can’t help but get the feeling if wins actually gave points to give a damn about that the No. 6 car might have opted to trade paint instead of taking it from the No. 22 this Saturday night.
- This event lacked the carnage of past Nationwide races at LOR, but side-by-side racing was ever plentiful yet again on a short-track that’s long been a fixture on the NNS circuit. Chances of seeing this kind of action on the Big Track next year are probably about as good as IMS selling out their Nationwide event next year.
- Speaking of Lucas Oil Raceway, Saturday night’s race likely will mark the last visit for the Nationwide Series to the facility in the foreseeable future, the latest old-school short track to get the boot from major-league stock car racing. Fortunately, track personnel informed Frontstretch over the weekend that their phones have been ringing off the hook from touring series across the country looking to race at LOR now that the Nationwide Series weekend is open. Fans, draw a line in the sand. Save the money you were going to spend at the Brickyard and go short-tracking. Let’s make the NNS at the Brickyard the worst-attended event of the season in 2012.
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