Goodbye, short tracks. Thanks for the memories. I appreciate what you used to do for NASCAR.
However, you’ve been replaced – by road courses, where the NASCAR Nationwide Series heads for the third and final time this weekend.
Mid-Ohio will be the center of attention, and most likely, the most-entertaining race of the weekend. Everything that we once got from short tracks – and not to completely put them to bed, but they have been passed over – will be on full display Saturday afternoon.
Drama. The unexpected. Excitement.
In short, road courses have become must-watch TV. Rarely does any other race manage to keep us on the edge of our seats lap after lap, because nowhere else is there drama lurking around every corner as we wait to see if drivers survive turn 1 on a restart or who might lose their rhythm and wind up off course during a long green-flag run. We watch because there is that off-chance a shoe somehow manages to find its way onto the course to ruin the leader’s day.
Road course racing is one of a kind, with a perfect package of what’s wanted every weekend as well as a new land of opportunity. In June, Brendan Gaughan cashed in at Road America, scoring his first career win in a race that featured twists and turns right down to the final corner. In fact, Road America has seen quite a few drivers accomplish the same feat very recently.
AJ Allmendinger stormed back into the NASCAR spotlight last year at the facility by winning for Team Penske. He followed it up at Mid-Ohio with win No. 2 in the only two races he ran. Nelson Piquet, Jr. , meanwhile, was the victor in 2012 with Turner Motorsports.
Dating back over the last 10 years, seven drivers – including Gaughan, Allmendinger and Piquet – have earned their first career Nationwide Series win on a road course. Denny Hamlin (2005) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2007) earned theirs’ in Mexico City. Marcos Ambrose (2008) grabbed his in Watkins Glen while Boris Said (2010) finally broke through in Montreal.
This weekend there will be a boatload of drivers who will have a very good chance to do the same. For instance, Joe Gibbs Racing has a talented lineup in both Sam Hornish, Jr. in the No. 54 and Kenny Habul back in the No. 20. Kevin O’Connell, who had a great underdog story at Road America finishing third, will try again for Rick Ware Racing in the No. 15.
But the biggest story and someone that has been trying and trying to break through will be Team Penske’s Alex Tagliani. While Gaughan triumphed back in June, it was at the expense of Tagliani, who led 19 laps and was out front when he ran out of fuel. In a dramatic and frantic dash to the finish, Tagliani got back to second before time ran out.
Tagliani is amongst the few who are a joy to watch navigate a road course. He and Hornish have to be considered the favorites for the win on Saturday, although if history is any indication, there is no telling who will be under the checkered flag in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 – but the door is wide open.
Except a victory cannot just be the main focus. Opportunity knocks in many forms and going into Saturday, the front four of the Nationwide Series point standings are separated by just 13 points. Does rookie Chase Elliott survive another weekend and impress in the process? He’s pulled off top-10 finishes – fourth at Road America, sixth in Watkins Glen – in the first two road course races this season.
The same can’t be said for his JR Motorsports teammate Regan Smith, who finished outside the top 13 in both events. Smith goes into the weekend second in points while third-place Elliott Sadler kept pace with Elliott and fourth-place Ty Dillon grabbed at least one top-10 finish.
Regardless, the road course racing picture is constantly changing, and it’s what keeps us coming back – much like those renowned short tracks that are so beloved. More should be expected this weekend, and in the end, as the previous two road races did, we’ll all be satisfied.
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There’s a short track next week. Bristol night race. My Nationwide driver likes Bristol. It’s one of his two favorite tracks, like a hometown track he says. His other favorite’s Atlanta, where they go after Bristol. He’s doing double duty this week, btw.