BRISTOL, Tenn. – It’s been nearly 14 years since Elliott Sadler won a Nationwide Series race at Bristol.
Not anymore. A decade removed from the site of his first career Cup win, Sadler drove away from the field on a lap 272 restart with old tires, scoring his second victory and fourth consecutive top-five finish of the 2012 season. Sadler held off a bevy of Cup regulars behind him, with Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, polesitter Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top five.
The race was remarkably quiet by Bristol standards, with only four yellow flags slowing the 300 laps run on Saturday afternoon (March 17). A harder tire compound proved difficult for a number of drivers on the longer run and ultimately played a major factor in deciding the race.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who finished sixth) gave up the lead to pit for tires under the final caution on lap 260, but proved unable to make his way back up through the field despite having possibly the afternoon’s fastest car.
Sadler leaves Bristol as the points leader over defending champion Stenhouse by 25 markers. Sadler also leaves as the only driver in the Nationwide Series to score top 10s in all four starts. The win also marked the fourth consecutive NNS victory for NNS regulars, the first time in series history that has occurred to start the season.
What more can be said about Sadler’s scorching start to the 2012 campaign? After coming oh-so-close to a championship in his return to Nationwide competition a season ago, Sadler is showing the powerful form that RCR’s vaunted NNS program is known for. Two wins and four consecutive top-10 finishes to kick off this year have the No. 2 car leading the points and running as well, if not better, than anything Roush, Gibbs or Turner has to offer.
To top it all off, this second win came at a track that Sadler holds especially high esteem for, the site of his first career Cup victory. There will be no shortage of confidence for the No. 2 team heading to Fontana, another track that Sadler has visited victory lane at in a Cup car. Those hoping to contend for this year’s title are going to have to get up to speed, and fast, to keep up with this rocket out of the gate.
Speaking of Stenhouse, the defending NNS titleholder did manage to minimize the bleeding, leading 41 laps and finishing sixth with a car that was in the thick of it from the drop of the green flag. Since Daytona, the driver of the No. 6 has not finished worse than Saturday’s result and has already visited victory lane. Add in a 12-race sponsorship deal secured with longtime backer Blackwell Angus Beef and the pieces are falling into place for another Sadler/Stenhouse slugfest.
One important note, though, was audible in the driver’s post-race radio chatter: frustration. Feeling he had the car to win, Stenhouse was very critical of his crew chief’s decision to pit him from the lead for four tires less than 40 laps from the finish. With Goodyear having brought a hard tire compound to both of the shorter tracks on the schedule so far, it appears the No. 6 team had to learn a hard lesson this Saturday, one that likely cost them a trophy.
Justin Allgaier also seemed to relish the return to Bristol (the site of his first career win two years ago), scoring his first top-10 finish in Thunder Valley since that victory. Though Allgaier’s car was not necessarily of the same caliber he was racing at the front of the field, the veteran used the high line to perfection for much of the race’s second half, proving almost impossible to pass and drawing the ire of fellow competitors including Stenhouse, Earnhardt and others over the radio.
Allgaier maintained his ninth-place position in the standings, two markers behind Michael Annett.
Two big-name prospects that have been sponsor-starved both found dollars and consistent performances this Saturday. Trevor Bayne, whose sponsor story is well publicized capitalized on backing that arrived only five days before the drop of the green flag and came home eighth in front of a Tennessee home crowd that gave him a raucous ovation, one that rivaled even Dale Jr.’s in driver introductions. Bayne still sits third in points as a result.
Meanwhile, Ryan Truex got back behind the wheel of a JGR entry and brought the No. 20 home 10th.
Mike Bliss also found sponsorship for the weekend, came home 15th and as a result cracked the top 10 in Nationwide points for the first time since Texas last spring. Tri-Star Motorsports teammate Tayler Malsam finished 18th for his fourth consecutive top 20 this year in the No. 19.
Erik Darnell finished 21st as the only driver from The Motorsports Group running at the finish, his best short-track result in NNS competition since 2009.
Maybe Brian Scott and the No. 11 team need to be confident in silence on race weekends to change their fortunes. Despite crew chief Kevin Kidd stating he was sure Scott had a good piece for Saturday (just like last weekend), the No. 11 car dropped back from its fifth-place starting spot over the first run of the race and kept going the wrong way. Scott fell out of the top 10 by the race’s first caution, then was busted on pit road during that cycle to fall further behind.
Come lap 184, Scott was behind the wall for good with a terminal clutch issue; the team considered cutting the lines and trying to have Scott force his car into gear on track, but never made it back to do so. Scott has now finished outside the top 30 in three of the season’s first four races with no top-10 finishes. The race also marked his third DNF in his last six starts dating back to last year, driving what is considered to be top-tier equipment over at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Blake Koch’s surprising top-10 standing after a strong start to the season came crashing back to reality at Bristol, with the engine in his No. 41 car expiring on lap 117. Koch drove it back, but the crew found a misty smoke cloud waiting for them under the rear decklid on pit road, an unfixable problem that left the driver 38th. That result, his worst since Montreal last August, tumbled him to 17th in points.
Kenny Wallace was running in the top 15 before apparently running over debris and destroying the car’s motor on lap 201 (the driver reported shortly before parking that the car felt like either the belts were gone or a hole had been punched in the oil pan). The 33rd-place finish was Wallace’s second DNF in the last three races and second consecutive DNF at Bristol.
A multitude of drivers fell victim to unassisted spins and accidents over the course of 300 laps. Lap 105, Joey Gase all but turned right into the turn 4 fence, pancaking the right side of his No. 39 car and forcing the team to the garage for extensive repairs (Gase returned to the track and finished 36th).
Lap 156, Sam Hornish Jr. spun out in turn 2 with no one anyone near his car. He avoided contact and finished 13th in a race that also saw him hit a crew member on Kyle Fowler’s No. 08 team (the crew member avoided injury).
And on lap 166, TJ Bell also lost the rear end of his machine racing with Malsam heading into turn 1. Bell’s team was unable to repair the No. 50 car, as the team left their replacement radiator back at the shop. Both Bell and Gase’s teams currently sit outside the Top 30 owner points cutoff only a week before the 2012 markers take effect.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Brad Teague. On an afternoon where 70-year-old Morgan Shepherd missed the show, there was another wily veteran to take his place. In a true throwback episode, Tennessee native and 64-year-old Teague ran the distance and finished 31st, albeit 16 laps off the pace. Though the entry list will show that Teague wheeled the No. 4 car for JD Motorsports, the hauler, pit equipment and crew that made the finish happen all bore the colors of Food Country USA and Don Henderson’s longtime racing operation.
Seeing the old-school colors back at the track was quite a sight and so was Teague running a full race (he last did so at Richmond way back in 2008).
Start-and-parkers occupied five of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $83,803 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored five of the top-10 finishing positions in Saturday’s race, occupied eight of the 43 spots in the field and took home $179,743 in purse money.
48 of 172 starting positions occupied (27.9%)
0 of 4 trophies collected
The Final Word
- Anyone else find it funny that during the telecast’s mid-race studio update, ESPN had Brad Daugherty describe Danica Patrick’s 20th-place run, off the lead lap, as a good day, while the very next feature had Hornish’s day as a struggle … even though that open wheeler was higher in the running order and on the lead lap despite a spin. Between that and an overzealous emcee doing pre-race from the grandstands that couldn’t go a sentence without saying Kyle Busch – plus a feature that saw Patrick recite all 50 states alphabetically – it’s apparent that even a trip to a short track can’t cure all the sport’s ills. Namely, shoving names down fans’ throats.
- Steve Wallace was out and about in the garage area all day Saturday, shaking hands and making laps around the infield. Look for this guy to return to a Nationwide car as soon as Texas. My hunch? JD Motorsports.
- Though Allgaier managed to stay out of trouble and come home seventh, there were a number of drivers out there unhappy with how hard he made passing on the track. Similar to the criticism that Ryan Newman was subjected to for years, the reaction from this writer is the same. It’s a freaking race. Allgaier’s not playing dirty, he’s not making contact, he simply held his position. If a driver really is faster, he will be able to get past another car, especially on a multi-grooved oval.
- That being said, the fact that Allgaier had to play such an obstructionist to keep his No. 31 was part of a larger situation for Turner Motorsports. Allgaier had to fight tooth-and-nail to the point of irking fellow competitors to finish seventh. And Cup teammate Kahne finished fourth after staying out on old tires late, but that’s ignoring his profanity-laced lap 196 tirade as he was mired in 14th (the team figured out that the pit crew had gone the wrong way on adjustments during the prior pit stop). Between the miscues and the frustrations, one can’t help but be reminded of a situation like Penske Racing 2005, a season that saw both Kurt Busch and Newman sounding and driving much like Kahne and Allgaier today. Be it the lack of a full-time teammate for Allgaier, a focus on James Buescher’s Truck operation or just a slow start, Turner Motorsports 2012 is looking far removed from the organization that won only three weeks into the season a year ago. There’s tension in this camp, whether it’s vocalized or not.
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