After losing out on the 2011 Sprint Cup championship by the narrowest of margins to Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards decided to cut out the distractions and focus on his 2012 Cup season. One of the 'distractions' was his long-time commitment to the Nationwide Series, and Watkins Glen was the first time that he'd returned to the series since the end of last season.
As it turned out, the return to Nationwide actually proved a most welcome distraction from what had been a frustrating, winless time in Sprint Cup this year. One race, one visit to victory lane is just what the doctor ordered: "This is huge for us, itï¿½s nice to be in victory lane," he said after claiming the win.
Edwards had started on the front row of the Zippo 200 at the 7-turn, 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International road course in New York state alongside polesitter Sam Hornish Jr., but the early danger came from Hornish's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski starting in fourth place alongside Paul Menard on the second row.
Keselowski was able to use an early restart opportunity on lap 10 to get second place off Edwards, and then two laps later was able to hurdle the curbing and trust that Hornish wouldn't do anything to knock them both out of the race, allowing him to take the lead on lap 12.
The restart had been for a caution triggered by a cut tyre sent Alex Popov into the guardrail, the yellows being needed for the ensuing debris. But there had been an even earlier incident on the very first corner of the first lap, which while it didn't bring out a caution did end up putting Danica Patrick out of the race, a 43rd place the worst result of her NASCAR career to date.
It actually wasn't her fault, and was purely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: Ryan Truex had lost control of the #20 on the downhill run into the turn 1 right hander, and spun onto the grass. Unable to stop, he slid down the slope until the car ran back onto the track at the exit of turn 1: Patrick just happened to be the car coming round the bend when Truex materialised, and she had no where to go but right into him.
"I drove in the corner and got wheel-hopped and spun out back in front of everybody," explained Truex. "It was either wheel-hop and hope I didnï¿½t run into my teammate in front of me and take out the field, or turn in the grass and spin out and not hit anybody, and I chose the grass. I had no control after that."
At first, Patrick's team hoped that the damage was merely cosmetic - merely a crumpled engine cover obscuring Danica's vision. The mechanics beat that back into place and secured it with tape before sending it back out again, but the amount of water running out was all too evident and indicated the radiator was shot. Patrick brought the #7 back into the garage to see if there was anything that could be done, but the damage did indeed prove terminal.
"One thing leads to the next in these situations," said Patrick after calling it an early day. "When they got the radiator changed - and they did it really quickly - I went to fire it, and there was water coming out of the tail pipe. It wouldn't turn over."
Out in front, Keselowski continued to lead until the start of green flag pit stops on lap 20, and picked up where he'd left off when the cycles were completed on lap 29; Paul Menard's stop was complicated by a voltage problem that required a return visit to pit road for a battery swap.
20-year-old road course specialist Alex Kennedy had led several laps in the #87 during that period by staying out longer than anyone, but his race came to an end on lap 39 when he got loose, spun and crashed at turn 3 which also provoked Austin Dillon into a spin in order to avoid him. That led to a restart at just past the halfway point, with Keselowski now leading Edwards, Joey Logano, Hornish and Kyle Busch.
Busch had been having an eventful race, starting from near the back of the grid because of his engine failure on Friday but already up to 16th place by the time the first caution came out on lap 6, and into the top ten shortly after the restart. Even though a broken gear lever compromised his midrace, he managed to lead a lap during the next cycle of green flag pit stops.
Before that sequence could play out, the third caution of the day came out on lap 56 after Joe Nemechek stalled his car in the inner loop. Miguel Paludo, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek and Mike Wallace had yet to make their visits to pit road and were duly listed as the race leaders, and they duly came in under the caution, as did Menard (for his third battery of the day) and Logano who had spun the previous lap after contact with Edwards. "Tell Carl to bite me," said the fuming Joe Gibbs Racing driver, plotting a hot-tempered revenge that ultimately did not play out after his engine dropped a cylinder and left him off the pace by the end of the race.
At the restart there was a scramble for the lead which included a three-wide banzai move by Busch into turn 1 which rewarded him with second place behind Keselowski. Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kasey Kahne slotted into place behind them.
Busch wasn't able to hold on to second spot for long, however, losing the position to Edwards just a couple of laps later on and then getting some contact from Hornish trying to do likewise. A lap later and the race was back under yellow for the fourth time of the day, after Cole Whitt tore off his front bumper on the guardrail at turn 5 at the entrance to the inner loop.
Keselowski looked to have a good breakaway at the restart with ten laps remaining, only to have Edwards pass him on the outside into the esses; behind them, Kyle Busch dropped places in rapid succession to Hornish, Stenhouse and Logano as it emerged that he was now suffering from a sticking throttle to add to his woes.
"Weï¿½ve had so many issues, itï¿½s just crazy," said Mike Bean, the crew chief for the #54 Kyle Busch Motorsport entry. "The shifter ball broke off probably 20 laps ago and Kyle did a great job sticking with it. The throttle is sticking; weï¿½ve had so many issues. Just losing that engine yesterday and then having the problem there at qualifying and starting at the rear."
Meanwhile Keselowski had managed to hang on to the back of Edwards' #60, and he made his move on lap 76, momentarily regaining the lead onto to lose it again to Edwards on the run down into turn 1 at the start of the next lap. Before Keselowski could strike back, the track was under caution again for Austin Dillon's right front tyre blowing out on him after contact with Michael Annett heading into the inner loop.
That set up a restart with two laps remaining - not quite an official green-white-chequered finish, but the next best thing. Edwards had control of the restart, but by the end of lap 81 Keselowski was going side-by-side with Edwards for the win.
"I hate to admit it, but I missed a downshift in turn 6," said Edwards of the opening he'd given to Keselowski. "All day, that was where he was beating me, so I went in there extra hard, and I missed my downshift and he got next to me."
"Obviously he missed the last left hander," agreed Keselowski. "He struggled to get into that corner. I was really strong through there and pulled up to his outside door. I went into 11 and Carl was outside and he got loose, came up the track and hit me. That kind of took away all my momentum. I didnï¿½t have a chance at it from there."
After that contact, Keselowski was left with no room to work with on the final run into turn 1, and was left with no choice but to concede the position to Edwards after all. The 2007 Nationwide Series champion (back when it was called the Busch Series) was back on control and not inclined to make the same mistake twice. He held the lead through to the chequered flag, performed his trademark backflip, and headed for celebrations in victory lane.
"I canï¿½t say thank you enough to the fans that come out and support this sport," said Edwards. "Whether we won or lost I was having a lot of fun out there. Brad was driving the wheels off of his car.
"I had fun racing with him, racing with Kyle," he added. "I got into Logano there in turn seven one time being real aggressive and I feel bad we spun him out, but I had a really fun time and I canï¿½t wait to race tomorrow," pledging to learn from his penultimate lap mistake and not repeat that error in the Sprint Cup outing: "I wonï¿½t miss any shifts; I almost had a heart attack there!"
Behind Edwards and Keseelowski, Sam Hornish Jr. clinched third place and was the top-placed driver of those eligible for Nationwide Series points.
"It was a difficult restart there," Hornish said of the final two laps. "I felt like Carl slowed down the restart quite a bit. I was about ready to go, started to go and then had to get back out of the gas. It was one of those things where I had to make sure that I had the bottom line and try to play it as smart as I could.
"Racing there with Brad and Carl and Kyle feels good when we can take our PPG Dodge and be that competitive," he added. "Iï¿½m really thankful for what the guys at the Penske shop do to these cars. The engine shop today gave me a great car. I made a mistake on a shift and didnï¿½t know if the engine was going to make it all day long."
Hornish moves up a position to third in the Nationwide standings behind Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Sadler had soldiered on through the race to a 12th place finish, while Stenhouse completed the 82 laps in fourth place just behind Hornish.
"That was fun," said Stenhouse. "What we wanted to do is finish ahead of those guys. We did what we wanted to do and thatï¿½s come out of here, really we were trying to come out with minimal points lost, but we ended up gaining a few I think and getting a top five on a road course. Thatï¿½s huge!"
The big loser in the championship standings was Dillon, whose late tyre blow-out sent him to a 23rd place finish and dropped him to fourth place in the standings, now 29pts off Sadler.
Full race results, qualifying and practice times
, and Nationwide Series championship standings