Track position was king at the Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday (March 3) and it proved to be the nemesis of a dominant Kevin Harvick. Despite leading 107 circuits, Harvick’s decision to take four tires during the final cycle of pit stops on lap 164 left him behind too many cars.
That left Elliott Sadler, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to fight it out, with Sadler holding off Keselowski to score his first Nationwide Series win since 1999. Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Harvick rounded out the top five.
In what many considered to be the first real race of the 2012 season, a rematch of the Sadler/Stenhouse title fight of a year ago definitely appeared to be in the cards, with both drivers among the class of the field throughout Saturday afternoon. But between Sadler’s win and strong showings by both Dillon and Harvick, Richard Childress Racing showed real muscle in their return season to Nationwide Series racing.
The two heavyweight operations contesting the Nationwide Series in 2012 are Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, and both saw all of their cylinders firing on Saturday. It only took Sadler two races to do something he couldn’t do in all of 2011, break through to victory lane. The win didn’t fall into his lap either, as the No. 2 car took the lead on lap 175 with an aggressive pass of Keselowski and then held the 2010 series champ off even as he got within a few car lengths as the checkered flag flew.
It wasn’t quite as convincing a performance for Dillon, who in several instances nearly got himself into rookie trouble (he lost a number of positions in the race’s midsection struggling to get past a slow Charles Lewandoski on the backstretch), but no one can argue with results, as the defending truck champion surged to his second consecutive top-five result.
Meanwhile, the Blue Oval brigade’s dynamic duo of Stenhouse and Bayne delivered top 10s. For Bayne, it was a strong result that one can only hope he takes notice of … as he’s only got one more race scheduled for 2011 in the Nationwide car. Stenhouse on the other hand was seen visibly on the edge for much of Saturday’s race, pushing three-wide passes and visibly having the rear end slide out on his car.
Their cars are certainly that good, but the RCR/RFR roster brought their A-games this weekend.
The hardest earned result of the race without question went to Michael Annett. Running in the top 15 for the afternoon, Annett’s day seemed all but sunk on lap 114 when he nearly knocked down the wall exiting turn 4. Rather than pitting after falling off pace though, Annett stayed on track and powered through the rest of the afternoon, not only maintaining his position, but driving back into the top 10 doing it by race’s end. Saturday marked the second consecutive top-10 result for Annett at PIR.
Sam Hornish Jr., who won the last Nationwide race at Phoenix back in November, rebounded from a disappointing Daytona with a sixth-place run that moved him to sixth in Nationwide points.
Mike Bliss was the top finisher for Tri-Star Motorsports in 16th, his best finish in Nationwide competition since Dover last September.
Blake Koch’s career-run at Daytona last week was followed by a crash back to reality, as the car was forced to the garage in the race’s midsection with what was reportedly a mechanical issue. When all was said and done, Koch and the No. 41 team got back onto the track and finished the race, but did so 34 laps down in 31st. The result was Koch’s worst since electrical failure ended his day early in the Montreal road race last August.
Turner Motorsports had three cars finish inside the top 20 on Saturday, a result a great number of Nationwide teams would kill for. Reality is, though, that Turner Motorsports is not the everyday Nationwide team and top 20s are not what the team is racing for.
Justin Allgaier was a non-factor all afternoon in finishing 15th. More troubling is that for the second race in a row, the team’s flag was carried by James Buescher, a Truck regular and part timer in the NNS ranks. Buescher’s 12th-place result came with a cost as well, as he wrecked his primary car during opening practice Friday morning.
Kenny Wallace’s weekend was about as bad as it could have been. Wallace came to Phoenix with an unsponsored racecar for the first time since Nashville last April, knowing full well he’s only guaranteed to start the first five races of this season. What’s more, it’s apparent that driver and owner are not on the same page with regard to seeking said missing sponsorship.
Though Wallace said all the right things through race weekend about the strength of his RAB Racing team, it was more than obvious that the lack of backing … and the sudden uncertainty surrounding his ride … was weighing on the driver. It was especially obvious to team owner Robby Benton, who reportedly remarked that he was displeased with his driver’s attitude towards their marketing efforts.
“He thinks what he’s doing is generating interest,” Benton told SB Nation, “but at the end of the day, it’s making me and our race team look like a couple of asshats and trying to get people to feel sorry for him. That’s not productive.”
Regardless of the tone or intent of such remarks, all does not appear well in the No. 09 camp, one of the feel-good stories of 2011 that saw Wallace return to the top 10 in points for the first time since 2005. And that didn’t bode well for on-track results either; Wallace dropped back early after starting a strong third, but smacked the turn 4 wall on lap 104 after blowing a right-front tire.
The team was unable to repair the damage and came home 36th, Wallace’s worst result since Bristol last August and his third consecutive finish of 30th or worse dating back to last year.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Jason Bowles. After a hugely disappointing start to 2012 courtesy of an engine failure at Daytona, a return to his old stomping grounds proved to be just the medicine for the 2009 West Series champ. Bowles qualified in the top 20 and stayed there all day, bringing home a 19th-place finish that was a career-best on an oval track.
The challenge for the No. 81 team will be to sustain such momentum … the team was unable to score consecutive top-20 finishes through the entire 2011 season.
Start-and-parkers occupied six of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $58,278 in purse money. (Worth noting: Morgan Shepherd parked his No. 89 car after only 17 laps with fuel pressure issues despite having a sponsor on the hood.)
Cup regulars scored four of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied eight of the 43 starting positions in the field and took home $160,003 in purse money.
26 of 86 starting positions occupied (30.2%)
0 of 2 trophies collected (0.0%)
Who You Didn’t See
With 13 of the 43 cars in the field either driven by Cup regulars or start-and-parking, 30 Nationwide Series regulars took the green flag Saturday. Of those 30, Jeremy Clements, Jamie Dick, David Green, Erik Darnell and Eric McClure were not mentioned in any capacity during Saturday’s telecast.
In addition, Casey Roderick, Bowles, Mike Wallace, Tayler Malsam, Shepherd, Joey Gase, Koch, Darryl Harr, TJ Bell and Lewandoski were either only mentioned in passing, as lap traffic or as being forced to go behind the wall. Shepherd, Koch, Harr and Lewandoski all were mentioned as having gone behind the wall, but at no point were their struggles elaborated on.
In all, 15 of the 30 regulars were either minimally or not featured during the broadcast (50%).
Six of those 15 (40%) were unsponsored for Saturday’s race.
The Final Word
- Nationwide Series regulars have now won the first two races of the season for the first time since Chad Little won at Daytona and Rockingham to kick off the 1995 season. The last time two different Nationwide regulars won to start a season? Here’s a shocker … it’s never happened before.
- The use of the flat apron exiting turn 2 down the backstretch proved to be all but ineffective to make passes (unless one counts the parade of cars that used it to avoid Lewandoski and his off-pace machine). Just ask Keselowski, who actually lost ground to eventual winner Sadler on the final lap. On the plus side, even though a number of drivers still tried to make use of the flat, it didn’t cause any wrecks like it did in the fall.
- Another race with hard tires, another boring show decided on pit road. Though Keselowski almost made a race of it in the closing laps, the most dominant car in the field was doomed after the final cycle of pit stops, his four tires notwithstanding. Goodyear’s one-page playbook for repaved tracks is to bring rocks to put on the racecars, which begs an obvious question. Why, exactly, did PIR need a repave and reconfiguration? That worked really well for Bristol and Charlotte after all.
- Last year’s rookie of the year watched this race from the sideline after being the only driver to miss Sunday’s Cup race. It’s a real shame to see Timmy Hill’s progression as a driver derailed by an asinine plan to put a second-year NASCAR race in a bottom-tier Cup car. Here’s only hoping Rick Ware Racing quickly realizes how in over their heads they are at the Cup level and gives this prospect the ride he wheeled so well in 2011 back.
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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