Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Breakdown: Chase Elliott Breaks Through

Well, that didn’t take long. Six races into his Nationwide Series career, young Chase Elliott is a winner. The son of the 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, powered by Kevin Harvick on the outside with 15 laps to go and then drove away from both he and Kyle Busch to become the series’ second straight first-time visitor to Victory Lane.

Chase Elliott won the first Nationwide race of his budding career with a thrilling performance in Texas Friday night.
Chase Elliott won the first Nationwide race of his budding career with a thrilling performance in Texas Friday night.

Elliott capped off a night that was all about the team he drives for, JR Motorsports. All four cars started and ran inside the top 10; each one ended the night inside the top seven. Their competition was tough, though throughout a night where a variety of names made an appearance near the front. Kyle Larson was one, powering his way through traffic after starting 37th and seemed ready to have the floodgate of wins open after finally capturing his first one two weeks ago in Fontana. But he only led a single lap, a slow green-flag stop from the crew stunting his progress and resulting in too much track position lost. Kyle Busch, who also came from the back (36th) made his presence felt but the Toyotas had nothing for their Chevy counterparts down the stretch.

14 lead changes occurred among nine drivers in a race that was fairly clean, with just five caution flags waved. A Jamie Dick – Chris Buescher accident, the biggest problem of the night set up the final round of pit stops and changed the race in favor of Elliott’s final push. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had the best car on long runs was no match for that short stint to the finish, leaving Elliott and Kevin Harvick to battle for the race win.

Kyle Busch finished second Friday night, nearly 2.7 seconds behind winner Elliott while Larson wound up third. A fading Harvick, who led a race-high 101 circuits was fourth while Earnhardt rounded out the top-5 finishers. In the point standings, Elliott’s win put him atop the charts by two over teammate Regan Smith. Trevor Bayne, the co-leader coming in had a horrible night, wrecking early and came home 23rd, a disastrous five laps behind. He’s now dropped to fifth in series points.

The Good

There was no denying JR Motorsportson Friday, regardless of which car it was. Between three of their four Chevrolets – point leader coming into the night Regan Smith was shut out – they led 154 of the race’s 200 laps. Early on, it looked like Harvick would be the dominant force, another Cup driver taking control as he started on pole and led the first 87 laps. Team owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. then joined the fray for 15 circuits, looking for his first non-restrictor plate Nationwide win since 2006. But ultimately, down the stretch it was Elliott who had the car come alive, taking care of the NAPA Chevrolet while crew chief Greg Ives adjusted correctly for cooling track conditions.

The night was Elliott’s, for certain as the much-hyped talent kept his car in position to win. Like Larson, a week ago he then had to pass a Cup regular, Harvick, and then hold off a cadre of Cup guys behind him in the closing laps. His reward for doing so, at just age 18 means Elliott has wins in both the Nationwide and Truck Series to his credit; quickly, he’s made NAPA look smart for jumping on board the No. 9 at the last minute. In six races, he’s now finished in the top 10 five times and has a legitimate shot at the series championship.

JR Motorsports, as a whole also played a part in the underlying story of the night: the racing. Harvick set a furious pace as he took off from the pole, but after losing the lead the door swung open for many others. Busch and Elliott drove to the point, along with Earnhardt Jr. to produce great side-by-side action. Even during long green-flag runs and pit stops, the racing was never too strung out to where passing seemed to be at a premium.

The Bad

The rough start to the season continued for Ryan Reed. The good news is that he didn’t tear up another Roush-Fenway Ford but he was way off the pace from the drop of the green flag. By night’s end, Reed was four laps down and credited with a 20th-place finish. How bad is it for Reed? Jeremy Clements and Jeffrey Earnhardt,who finished directly ahead may have half the funding combined but were still able to lap Reed twice.

Reed’s teammate, Trevor Bayne, had an even worse evening. Bayne entered the night tied for the point lead with Regan Smith, the only other driver to start the season with five top-10 finishes. But a blown right-rear tire on lap 43 took him out of contention, as the sheet metal was torn away from the AdvoCare Ford and he finished 23rd after starting eighth. Bayne is now fifth in points.

The Ugly

The new knockout style qualifying format is throwing teams for a loop. For the second race in a row, the room of doom caused a problem for some teams as they were unable to get on track and make a qualifying effort.

In Fontana, it was Kyle Busch who after six attempts missed the first round and had to start last. This weekend, Busch was joined by three others: Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Four big-name drivers and teams had the same running theme – camber issues – which caused them to miss round one of qualifying.

Sent to the rear for the start, it didn’t take them long to charge through the field, minimizing their punishment overall. But for a format that was hyped up to be both entertaining and TV worthy, two weeks of inspection problems isn’t what anyone had in mind. Certainly not when teams had over four hours to make it through inspection before qualifying was scheduled to begin…

David Starr excelled Friday night in a one-off deal with underdog TriStar Motorsports.
David Starr excelled Friday night in a one-off deal with underdog TriStar Motorsports.

Underdog Performer of the Race:David Starr of TriStar Motorsports lucked out when the aforementioned big name drivers failed to make it through pre-qualifying inspection. It gave Starr and many other underfunded teams an opportunity to go for broke in NASCAR’s new knockout format.

The team not only advanced to the second round but went through everyround on Friday afternoon in their No. 44 Whataburger Toyota, a sponsor that had just come on board this weekend. The impressive 12th-place starting position was followed with a 15th-place finish, the best of the two races the TriStar team has run this season with Starr. It’s also a career best for the Texas native, eclipsing the 17th he had earned at the same track back in 2001 when driving for A.J. Foyt.

Just how big was this result for a little team? Starr had an average running position of 16th and even led two laps during green-flag pit stops, the very first in his 30 career Nationwide starts.

Double-Duty and Start-and-Park Effect

  • Nine drivers who ran Friday night will attempt to qualify for Sunday afternoon’s Sprint Cup race.
  • Six of the top-10 finishers were not running for Nationwide Series points in 2014.
  • Six of 40 cars chose to start and park. They collected $91,610 in prize money.

The Final Word

The future of NASCAR has officially arrived. Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson drove the wheels off their Chevrolets Friday night for hard-earned, top-3 finishes that saw them hogging a chunk of TV time. Elliott is now a winner and will undoubtedly be in the Sprint Cup Series – next to Larson – in the very near future.

Both are proof that for as much slack as the series gets for Cup drivers coming down and taking charge, talent is being born and bred in the minor leagues. Kyle Busch is the winningest driver in the series but had nothing for the kids in front of him, a symbolic passing of the torch as Busch led just as many laps as Elliott, failing to dominate as many expected.

The series now heads to that tough ol’ egg-shaped track in Darlington, South Carolina. Another first-time winner might be too much to ask for but through six races, the Nationwide Series has set itself up for a memorable year. Two regulars have already won races and that phenomenal rookie, Elliott, leads the points.

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