Trucks: Piquet clinches first series win
19 August 2012
As he crossed the finish line, Nelson Piquet Jr. was on the team radio exclaiming: "We finally did it. We finally did it!"
A few minutes later after the customary burnout, he was duly celebrating in victory lane at Michigan International Speedway after claiming a breakthrough first win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in which he is a regular driver.
Piquet said that he and his team "have been fighting for this win since the beginning of last year and we finally made it," adding: "We did it and I'm really happy that the whole team stayed behind me this whole time."
He ended up winning the VFW 200 race by an impressive eight seconds over Jason White, after being forced to gamble on stretching his fuel to the absolute limit after an early spin seemed to leave him with little chance of competing for victory.
Joey Coulter had earlier claimed his first Truck series pole position and led the field to the green flag alongside Piquet. However, it was the Brazilian who quickly took point and led for the first 13 laps of the race through to the first of five cautions of the afternoon, this one for debris on the back stretch which allowed everyone an early opportunity for pit stops.
Brad Keselowski opted to stay out and lead the field back to racing on lap 17 but was quickly passed by Kurt Busch, who had been running in second place to Piquet before the caution, in the #18 Kyle Busch Motorsports entry for his first appearance in the Truck Series since 2001 after having claimed the championship in 2000.
Another caution for debris came out on lap 39, with Todd Bodine briefly taking the lead before spinning on lap 47 with help from John Wes Townley shortly after having handed back the top spot to Busch. Bodine's spin was the third caution of the day, with the green flag coming out on lap 50 but barely lasting two laps before Bodine spun his now-damaged truck for a second time.
"The aerodynamics on these trucks are so sensitive that you get really aero- pushy and aero-loose," said a conciliatory Bodine. "He [Townley] probably got aero-tight and pushed into me. That happens." His laid-back response to the situation was in sharp contrast to Bodine's rage against Piquet after the two made contact at Pocono two weeks ago: Bodine had labeled Piquet "an idiot" and even tried throwing his helmet at the Brazilian's truck.
At the restart on lap 56, Busch and Piquet - now fighting for the lead - made contact that Busch was able to survive, but which sent Piquet into a spin. With flat-spotted tyres, Piquet had no option but to pit under the ensuing caution and take on fuel, which put him on a different fuel strategy to everyone else but at the cost of track position. At the time it seemed like a disaster; in the end, it would prove to be the making of him.
"We just had to push reset and take the situation at that moment," explained Piquet's crew chief Chris Carrier. "All the decisions at that point were no-brainers."
It was touch and go whether Piquet could make it to the end of the race without another pit stop, but it was worth a shot. And so he dug in, slowed up to conserve enough fuel to allow him to have a chance of making it to the end, and watched the race unfold ahead of him.
"I knew that Nelson is very good at saving fuel," said Carrier of his belief that they could make the strategy work. "It comes very natural to him ... He's got very good throttle control, very good car control. He knows how to draft."
Busch was still in control of the race and leading the restart but he stil had to make a final pit stop of his own, which he did on lap 79 as the rest of the field cycled through pit lane. On lap 89, that shuffle left Piquet out on front again on his own, but the team were still anxious about the fuel situation and getting their driver to slow down and do whatever he had to to lean out the fuel use.
Carrier admitted that the fuel situation was so near the knuckle that he even considered a late splash-and-dash eight laps from the end: "We changed our minds three times in one lap," said Carrier about the deliberations. In the end, "We kind of just rolled the dice."
Piquet's speed on lap 90 was 184.952 mph; on the final lap it was down to 158.580 mph. "I was getting a bit scared of putting down second gear and just coasting," admitted Piquet. "I was going half-throttle already. They told me to back off more, that's why I was worried - I didn't know who the second place was."
But his margin over the field was such that when he did finally cross the line and claim the chequered flag, he was still eight seconds ahead of Jason White who was on a similar fuel-stretching strategy. Rookie Dakoda Armstrong held on to third place ahead of Parker Kligerman making his début as driver of the #7 Toyota for Red Horse Racing after being dropped by Brad Keseelowski's squad. Polesitter Joey Coulter ended up coming home in seventh place ahead of Keselowski in eighth and Kurt Busch in ninth.
"It was fun to get back in the trucks," said Busch, who despite the disappointment of missing out on the win that had seemed rightfully his for much of the afternoon was in pretty upbeat spirits nonetheless. "I really enjoyed myself out there and wanted to do a good job for Kyle and I think we got that done as far as evaluating our program. His program. I say 'Ours' because we're brothers and it's fun to do this together."
But all eyes were on the man celebrating his first series victory: "It came in a dramatic way, but it came. It doesn't matter how, but we did it!" he said. "It is a little weight off my back and for the whole family. I am just living to do what our family always did, win races and win championships."
It's the breakthrough win that he really wanted, after earlier this winning a regional race in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Bristol Motor Speedway in March, and then following that up with victory in just his third NASCAR Nationwide Series start at Road America, putting his F1 experience to good use on the road course.
"I want to prove to fans that I can win in any car that they put me into," added Piquet, delighted with his win on the two-mile Michigan oval to show that he's not just another road course ringer from overseas motor racing championships. "Now we have a K&N, Truck and a Nationwide win. Hopefully, we'll get a Cup win soon!"
In the championship standings, Piquet's win raises him to eighth place, 57pts off co-leaders Timothy Peters and Ty Dillon.