Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nationwide Series puts on good show from Watkins Glen

It's been mentioned at Rev'Jim's RantsnRaves before, but these Nationwide Series races can be a lot of fun to watch. Saturday's Zippo 200 race at Watkins Glen was no exception, but it was exceptional.

Watkins Glen, as configured for NASCAR races, is less technical than the road courses at Sonoma, Mexico City, and Montreal. There are more passing points and the track is considered "racier" than other road courses in North America. At Watkins Glen, the drivers can be more aggressive.

There were a total of nineteen Cup drivers entered in the race--the four "claim jumpers" racing for the championship, and fifteen in the race to, according to Jimmie Johnson, "get more seat time" on a road course. Indeed, Johnson and most of the others, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, and Jeff Burton, for instance, are drivers who have not performed well on road courses in the past.

Though the "European Style" qualifying didn't draw as many fans as it seemed to do in Canada, it still proved interesting in the final two sessions, as drivers continued to compete with each other during the four lap sessions to get the fastest time. After several changes in the provisional pole position, Dario Franchitti came out on top.

From the very start of the race, there was plenty of action. We know that there are many NASCAR fans who don't care for road racing, but if they missed this one, they missed a good one. The race actually looked more like a Martinsville race, with lots of pushing, shoving, and even some beating and banging.

The number of full course cautions through the teams off of any reverse engineered pit strategies, and this proved to be a factor in the outcome of the race. Before we get to that, however, there are a few events of note that happened during the race.

For example, around the halfway point, both Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch were penalized for pit violations and sent to the back of the field.It didn't take them long at all to get back to the front, and then Kyle did something that only Tony Stewart or short track frustration have been able to do in the past--that is to get race leader Jeff Burton so angry he went looking for retaliation. Busch attempted to pass Burton on the inside of a turn, but Burton was following his line, and clipped Busch's car, sending both of them spinning. They did not crash, however, and the race stayed green, with Busch taking the lead. Burton was on a mission, though, and was driving with an aggression which we have rarely seen from him. Busch knew what was coming, and try as he did to stay ahead, it proved to be difficult. The spin had thrown out the toe of his car, and it was not handling well enough for even a wheel man like Kyle Busch to hold the lead. Burton's retaliation was done expertly--a tap on the rear bumper to move Busch's car out of the way.

Let this be a lesson to all drivers--if you don't want to get beaten by Jeff Burton, don't make him mad.

Meanwhile, Joey Logano was disappointed in his own performance during the race, while running fourteenth, and he apologized to his crew chief, Dave Rogers, over the radio. Rogers replied with what has to be the "funny" of the race, saying something like, "One thing I never want to hear is somebody bad-mouthing my driver, even when it is my driver doing it."

Logano ended up finishing seventh.

Ryan Newman volunteered to drive the #22 car for Armando Fitz, without pay. Perhaps he was getting seat time in preparation for Sunday's race, or maybe he was getting used to driving second rate equipment, as he is expected to join Stewart Haas racing next year. Either way, he did well for himself, running in the top ten most of the race and finishing in twelfth place.

Jimmie Johnson was running second to Jeff Burton, with less than seven laps to go, but it was clear that he wouldn't have enough fuel to finish the race. The expected late-race caution never materialized, and it had been a while since most of the leaders had refueled. Marcos Ambrose was running third, and all he had to do was wait for Johnson and Burton to run out of fuel. Johnson ran out with four laps to go, and Burton ran out with two to go. Marcos Ambrose finally got his win.

Ambrose did a Kyle Busch style victory burnout, and Busch himself finished second. Brad Keselowski had an impressive sixth place finish, and Matt Kenseth proved that he can run on a road course, after all, by finishing third. Kevin Harvick, who was my pick to win finished fourth, and castaway Dario Franchitti got an impressive fifth place finish. Keselowski's finish placed him back in second place in the standings, 128 points behind Clint Bowyer, who still can't get the hang of road courses. Overall, the Nationwide Series regulars beat the claim jumpers and the experienced road course ringers, and that is something we like to see.

It's always great seeing a driver win for the first time in one of NASCAR's top tier series, and we knew that Marcos' time was coming. Now he really has something to smile about. It was a fun race, but it had to be seen to be believed. There was plenty of action throughout, and we have to say that NASCAR style racing fits in well with Watkins Glen. It is a shame it only happens once a year.

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