When the NASCAR Nationwide series goes to a road course, anything can and will happen. But when the Gardner Denver 200 began Saturday, I doubt anyone could have predicted the top-ten finishing order. There have been some great underdog finishes in Nationwide in recent years. It has been years, if not, decades since this many independent teams all got top-10 finishes. Not many independent teams get wins anymore in this day in age but a solid top-five or ten against the Cup affiliated powerhouses, is equal if not greeter then a win for some.
Of course, an upset in its own right is the winner of the race, Brendan Gaughan. But his No. 62 South Point Casino Chevrolet is a RCR owned car. It is hardly a jaw dropping upset when you look at the resources Richard Childress Racing has. The organization was just in Victory Lane two weekends ago at Michigan with Paul Menard. But the 6-time Cup winning team has never won a race with Brendan Gaughan. In fact, Gaughan had not won a race of any kind since his dominant year in truck competition in 2003. He was 0 for 98 in NNS when he finally got the win at Road America.
This will be widely considered a popular upset win among fans who have been critical about Gaughan’s place in the sport and with RCR. Some see him as a guy who is only in good equipment full-time because of his sponsorship deal with his family-owned casino. I often see fans joking on Twitter after a crash Gaughan was involved with, saying Brendan’s “gone.” But on Saturday, his only critic was himself after going off track three times before getting the checkered flag. Personally, I am so happy for him. His grandfather passed earlier in the year, and he has always been a kind, friendly face in the NASCAR community for many years. It is awesome to see one of the good guys win.
Now, let’s talk about the guys who really deserve some love. Yes, Alex Tagliani in the Penske No. 22 Ford did an outstanding job coming from the back on the GWC to get second, but how about third place Kevin O'Connell? Who in the world is Kevin O'Connell? I actually first heard of his name early that race day when I saw a picture posted by his team, Rick Ware Racing. It was his car, sponsored by Shania Twain’s charity. It was cool, so I posted it on Twitter asking if anyone could tell me who drives it. There were no responses.
Well, he finished third so he deserves some attention in my opinion. The former sports car driver only has five NASCAR starts since 2008 and prior to last weekend’s race at Road America, he did not have any finishes in the top-30 in any until Saturday. The Newport Beach born driver was hired once again to be a road course ringer for RWR in their No. 23 Chevy. They would have never dreamed this kind of result. After running in the back for much of the race, the underfunded team worked a solid pit strategy in the wet and drying conditions.
On the final restart after Justin Marks ran out of fuel along with Alex Tagliani, the seas parted for the likes of Kevin O'Connell, JJ Yeley, and Andy Lally. Kevin O'Connell ran down the fast rookie Chase Elliott and even gave Brendan Gaughan a run for his money for the win at one point! Teammate Carl Long said on Facebook that he sat in the pits of the team after doing a start and park and was amazed with the result. For a small team like Rick Ware racing and an unknown such as Kevin O”Connell, a third is like a win and then some!
Speaking of Carl Long, did you know he started a NNS team himself this year? The former Sprint Cup owner has forever been trying to make up a debt to NASCAR after an obscenely high fine after having a slightly large engine in the 2009 All-Star Open (which he finished last in). He has been piecing together start and park deals ever since to keep his head above water.
This season, he purchased a few of Penske’s old Dodges from a few years ago, or mostly cars that Sam Hornish ran in 2012 or so. JJ Yeley has been doing most of the driving for Carl Long’s team, doing a fairly good job considering little to no sponsorship money, crew help, and other vital resources. At Road America Yeley worked his way through the fast cars who could not handle the rainy weather and put himself in position for a good finish. On the last restart, he held his own against the faster cars to come home fifth in his Texas No. 28 Spirits Stages Dodge! A finish like this can provide finishing money that can keep them in business for quite a while and maybe with some new equipment!
Another underdog who had great top ten’s was eighth place Landon Cassill. Landon Cassill and his JD Motorsports team have been in and around the top-ten in points all year in NNS. The G&K Services Chevrolet was far from an eighth place car all day but the way it all worked out, they had a personal best run of the year. Cassill must be thrilled with the run considering he had to go way out of his way just to get to the race on time. Cassill had to fly back and forth from the Sprint Cup race in Sonoma on a commercial plane rather than a private plane that most all other double duty drivers have the luxury of using each week.
Andy Lally, the 2011 NSCS Rookie of the Year, returned to NASCAR racing at Elkhart Lake in the No. 55 Chevy for Viva Motorsports. The team that Jamie Dick usually races for chose Lally, the frequent sports car winner, to drive the car on the Sunday before the race. Lally had to drive to the shop himself last minute to get a seat fitted. He tweeted about how the effort was an underdog one but he was up for the challenge. He met his lofty goals of making the final round in qualifying and getting a top ten finish for the small team. After being in the way of the race leaders midway through the race, this was a good comeback for the team.
The other two guys who deserve a shoutout for their efforts are in my opinion the most over looked and underrated full-timers in Nationwide, like Mike Bliss and Jeremy Clements. Clements races for a single car, family owned team on a shoestring budget also outran some big names Saturday. A sixth place is the best ever result by this small team.
Mike Bliss has been tossed aside by many great teams in NNS over the last decade. After winning the 2002 Truck Series championship, Bliss signed with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide No. 20 car. He won a big race at Charlotte in 2004 before being fired. While having some brief stints in Sprint Cup, Bliss ran well for small teams like Fitz-Bradshaw, Phoenix and Braun. He won again in Charlotte in 2009 for James Finch but once again was let go from that team. The veteran found a home driving for the little team that could, TriStar. This is the team the fields many of the start and parks each week like the No. 10 and No. 91 on occasion.
This helps revenue for the other teams such as Bliss’ No. 19 Toyota. For the last three years, Bliss has run full races without sponsorship help full-time and has quietly done an exceptional job. Although this was their first top ten of the year, they have been running around the top-15 all year. With the money TriStar lacks compared to an RCR, they are the underdog team to keep an eye out for in the weeks to come in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.