24 June 2012
Nationwide: Piquet Jr. seals first NASCAR win
Lap 39 saw a good restart for Piquet Jr. but a poor one for McDowell who temporarily lost positions to Fellows and Patrick. There was the now-familiar jostling the first time through turn 5, which ended up with Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler being spun across the front of the #22 Dodge driven by Jaques Villeneuve, although Sadler was able to resume and head back for repairs in pit lane without triggering yet another caution. Brad Sweet followed Jason Bowles off the track into the gravel trap at turn 12 on lap 42 and displayed all his impressive dirt track racing skills to keep the wheels turning without getting beached, to power his way back out again without triggering a caution.
Piquet Jr. now had a four second lead over McDowell who was back in second ahead of Fellows, while Max Papis had once again proving his road race credentials by driving his way back up to fourth place ahead of Danica Patrick through all the pit stops and restarts. Patrick was holding position behind him and the two soon collected company as Brian Scott, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve all crowded onto the scene with five laps to go.
At this point, the history of races at Road America dictated that there should have been a frenzy of rapid cautions - which was just what Piquet Jr. didn't need wiping out his huge lead at the front over McDowell. It seemed to be coming to pass when John Young slowed on track with two laps remaining, but he managed to roll the car just far enough to get it into a safe run off area without the need for a caution after all; it seemed that all Piquet Jr. was going to have to worry about was not running out of fuel, which was marginal.
The most on-track excitement was being generated by that close-running pack led by Papis and Patrick competing for fourth: the two of them traded places, but each time Danica got ahead Max was able to dive-bomb her through turn 5 and retake the position. Finally, as the white flag came out for Piquet Jr., Patrick made the pass stick and Papis had to let it go in order to hold off a lunging Villeneuve: Max helped Jacques find the grass verge, which upset the #22's braking down the hill into turn 5, and Villeneuve had to find some other way of stopping the car in time to make the corner. That something ended up being the rear end of the #7, and Patrick was punted off into the gravel. he was able to extract herself, but she tumbled from fourth to 12th by the chequered flag through no fault of her own. Papis used the opportunity to steal back fourth place with Hornish Jr. also nipping past Villeneuve for fifth.
"We were racing hard, and I wasn't even fighting with Danica, I was fighting with Max Papis," Villeneuve told reporters after the race. "I guess he was wanting to cross over and go to the inside of Danica, and he probably didn't know I was there - so he pushed me into the grass. And you don't slow down that much in the grass."
For his part, Papis said: "Sorry she got a little bit tangled up there, but that's racing."
But crucially, there were still no caution flags: the race was done the minute Piquet Jr. cruised down the main straight and claimed the chequered flag, his first-ever national-level NASCAR Series win since coming to the US after his F1 career went up in smoke.
The race had been too complex strategy-wise and too full of strong road course 'ringers' like Papis and Villeneuve (not to mention accomplished turns from McDowell, Patrick and Hornish Jr. as well) to be able to truthfully describe Piquet Jr.'s win as 'dominant', at least not until that final restart after which he led 17 laps straight, more than anyone else all afternoon; but it had been a smart, strong sensible, error-free run entirely deserving of victory.
“I struggled a little bit in the beginning. But when I got some clean air, I took control,” he summed up in victory lane. The mega-wattage of the young Brazilian's smile could probably power a small city for weeks.
Hornish Jr. ended up as the top-placed Nationwide Series regular, with Allgaier recovering to tenth ahead of a nondescript Stenhouse in 11th. Championship leader Elliott Sadler slipped to 15th place by the end, but he still extended his points lead in the standings as second-placed Austin Dillon was battling mechanical gremlins all afternoon and did well to finish in 18th.
This weekend's race also saw the first return to duty for TriStar Motorsports driver Eric McClure, who has been sidelined since his crash at the start of May in Taladega, when his #14 car suffered an extremely violent head-on impact with the inside SAFER barrier. Not a road course specialist, he had a fairly anonymous afternoon of it at Road America on his way to 21st place - which probably was just what he wanted after the high drama of his last race outing: "For me, coming back, I'm not scared of the race car. I think they're as safe as they've ever been, and I think I proved it," he insisted.
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