Nelson Piquet Jr. is finally a full NASCAR national level race winner in the US, after claiming victory in only his third appearance in the Nationwide Series in the Sargento 200 road course race at Elkhart Lake's 4.048-mile, 14-turn Road America track.
Piquet Jr. becomes the first Brazilian and only the fifth driver born outside the US to win a major NASCAR event, after having previously won a race
in the regional K&N Pro Series East series in March at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“The car was great," he said after claiming the chequered flag at the end of two and a half hours of tough and physical road course racing. "I just had to make sure I didn't make any mistakes."
Having earlier won pole position for the Sargento 200 - itself a first for him at this level - Piquet Jr. got a good start to take the lead in a largely incident-green beginning to the 50-lap race, but it was clear that the more experienced Michael McDowell in second place had the faster car and sure enough the #18 soon passed for the lead going up the hill toward turn 6 on lap 3.
With the four-mile length of this road course, pit stop strategy here is totally different from anywhere else on the NASCAR calendar since it is possible to come in for a stop and not lose a lap. That opened up an unusual strategy for Michael Annett and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who both came in at the end of the first lap to top up on fuel, in order that they could get back out on track in clear air away from any incidents that might break out in the main pack.
Sam Hornish Jr. was in next time around, although that didn't work so well as he ended up dragging his refuelling can out of the pit stall as he pulled away and had to serve a drive-thru; a couple of laps later it was Jacques Villeneuve and Kurt Busch on pit road, and then next time by it was the two leaders McDowell and Piquet Jr. in for their first stops.
That left Canadian road ace Ron Fellows in charge of the race, but he suffered a left front puncture and ended up losing a huge amount of time limping around the track back to pit lane; Brian Scott inherited the lead ahead of Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt who had all yet to stop; Patrick was putting her road racing experience to good use by pressuring Allgaier into a small mistake, locking up his brakes and giving the #7 an open invitation to go past.
But this set of leaders were somewhat undone when a caution came out on lap 13 for a spin by TJ Bell at turn 14: they would now have to come in for their stop after the field had closed up again, costing them a number of positions in the process.
At the restart, McDowell was back in front but sharing the front row with 'Mad' Max Papis, who was always going to do his level best to snatch the lead at the first opportunity - and he duly pulled it off going into turn 3, soon pulling out a couple of car lengths over McDowell but not allowed to escape any further than that before a new caution came out on lap 17 for debris on the main straight.
That complicated the pit stop strategy no end: Papis and McDowell decided to come in along with Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and many others, and suddenly Danica Patrick was right back in the frame, starting on the front row alongside Miguel Paludo, while McDowell was now down in 19th place - but eyeing up a one-stop only strategy to get to the finish, excepting a repeat of last year's endless series of green-white-chequered finishes.
Patrick once again applied the pressure on the car in front and it seemed to pay off on lap 21 when Paludo made an error and slipped slightly too wide, allowing Patrick to take the lead. But she then over-committed into turn 5 and not only let Paludo past but also Jacques Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Ron Fellows.
Further back, other cars were having their moments too: TJ Bell went for his second off-track excursion of the day but managed to keep the car going and rejoined without causing a full course caution; and Kurt Busch - still getting used to the car after having been absent in Sonoma on Cup race duty on Friday and jetting over to Wisconsin overnight - also drifted too wide and had to fight to be allowed back on the racing line.
Paludo was in onto pit road on lap 22, which dropped him down to 24th and handed the lead over to Villeneuve with Piquet Jr. around two seconds behind him ahead of Fellows. That promoted Patrick back to fourth ahead of Cole Whitt, with Kurt Busch now sixth, Brian Scott in seventh just ahead of Papis and McDowell, and Sam Hornish Jr. rounding out the top ten ahead of Allgaier and Stenhouse Jr. as the race passed half distance.
The next caution came out on lap 31 when Australian road racer Kenny Habul suffered a brake failure and went off into the gravel and embedded the nose of the #75 into the tyre wall at turn 5 at the foot of the hill.
around two laps too too soon for the ideal pit strategy for the majority of the field, but still too good an opportunity for almost most of the field which duly filed in.
Danica Patrick emerged from pit lane first and slotted into third behind non-stoppers Hornish Jr., Allgaier and Paludo. However there was bad news for Papis, who ended up repeating Hornish Jr.'s earlier mishap with the refuelling can and thereby incurring a drive-thru penalty for the restart.
There mixed fortunes for two of the other road couse specialists when the track went green again: Piquet Jr. quickly executed a lovely couple of moves to leap up to third place, but at the same time Villeneuve was rear-ended by McDowell that turned him into a spin at turn 5 and left pointing in the wrong direction as the field streamed past him. By the time he was able to recover and rejoin the line he was well down the running order: just as well that TJ Bell chose that moment for another spin, which this time left him beached in gravel at the carousel between turns 9 and 10, and forced an immediate return to safety car conditions.
Paludo and Hornish Jr. were onto pit lane under the caution, and indeed a surprising number of cars followed them in - including Villeneuve and Papis who dropped to 22nd and 23rd as a consequence, all of them seemingly keen to top off their fuel to the maximum extent. That left Piquet Jr. and Allgaier ahead of McDowell and Patrick at the head of the field for the restart, McDowell moving swiftly into second behind Piquet Jr. who successfully secured the lead while Patrick had her hands full fending off Kurt Busch and Ron Fellows for fourth.
Allgaier was struggling, however, and quickly dropped back to sixth behind Patrick, Busch and Fellows; then on lap 37 his brakes locked up on the run down the hill into turn 5 and he was unable to make the turn, skating off into the deep gravel trap and receiving a hit from an unsuspecting Kurt Busch who had been making the corner in a normal fashion little suspecting the dive bomber cutting through from behind. That brought out the fifth caution of the day while the #31 was retrieved, and Busch also needed to come into the pits for a check over the collision damage.
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.