ELKHART LAKE, WIS. – Nelson Piquet Jr. had a lot of firsts during the NASCAR Nationwide series Sargento 200 race weekend at Road America.
A regular in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series, Piquet Jr. used his first career pole and laps led to earn his very first NASCAR national series win on the Wisconsin road course. In his third career NASCAR Nationwide start, the native of Brazil drove a flawless final 17 laps with the lead, earning a 2.258-second victory over runner-up Michael McDowell. He led a race-high 19 laps and also becomes the first Brazilian to win a NASCAR national series race.
“It’s difficult to put into words what I’m feeling,” Piquet Jr. said. “I think we had a great week since the first practice. I learned the track quite quickly and the team helped me out quite a bit.”
Piquet didn’t fight too hard for the lead until after the halfway mark, but that was a strategic move in order to save fuel in case there was a green-white-checkered finish like last year where the 4.048-mile course caused mayhem on pit crews trying to have enough fuel to finish the race.
“I could have fought harder in the middle of the race but there was no reason why,” Piquet said. “I wasn’t going to accomplish anything. I just held back a little bit and when it was the right moment I attacked. It was on one of the restarts where I passed Jacques [Villeneuve] and moved quick through the field and led the race at the end.”
McDowell and Ron Fellows finished where they started, at second and third respectively. Max Papis and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top five.
“We had a really good car,” McDowell said. “The problem was I used up my car a little too much to get into second and then on that final restart I tried to be a little smart and anticipate Nelson trying to go a little early and tuck in behind him but Danica [Patrick] was right there. I kind of knew if I gave up a little bit to be at the bottom it would be worth it, but I just never got to the bottom. I tried to run down Nelson but his car was fast. I don’t know if we would have had anything for him if we would have stayed with him on that restart. I think he was saving a little bit on fuel, because when he needed to go it seemed like he could.”
The Sargento 200 had a tamer finish than last year, which had three green-white-checker finishes. Things did get a little interesting when one of the big names from last year, Villeneuve, made contact with Danica Patrick in Turn 5 on the final lap, which spun Patrick, dropping her from fourth to 12th, her eventual finish.
Villeneuve finished sixth, followed by Brian Scott, Kurt Bush, Cole Whitt and Justin Allgaier.
Patrick had a near-flawless day up until her greeting with Villeneueve on the last lap. Villeneueve said after the race though that he was not trying to wreck Patrick at all.
“We were racing hard and I wasn’t fighting with Danica,” Villeneuve said. “I was fighting with Max Papis and just before the braking, I guess he was wanting to cross over and go to the inside of Danica. He probably didn’t know I was there, so it pushed me in the grass. You don’t slowdown that much in the grass, so by that time I was on the racetrack again, I was going a little bit faster than Danica. That’s all.”
The race started with Piquet leading, but that didn’t last long as McDowell took the lead on Lap 3. Busch, who had to start 34th after having unapproved adjustments made to his car, made his way all the way up to 17th. McDowell and Piquet Jr. would end up pitting on Lap 6 for fuel, allowing Fellows to grab the lead.
With Fellows starting to pull away from the pack, a punctured tire slowed down all of Fellows’ momentum, causing him to enter the pits on Lap 9. Brian Scott was the beneficiary of that, allowing him to take the lead. Patrick, who started 10th, would make her way up to second place by Lap 11 and stay in the top five for most of the race.
T.J. Bell had a problem in Turn 14 on Lap 13, leading to the first caution of the day. Many of the drivers made their way to the pits, with Allgaier having to spend some extra time there while his pit crew had to help remove a water bottle that had fallen underneath his gas pedal.
With the caution lasting multiple laps, Scott was one of the last drivers to pit, surrendering his lead to McDowell. Papis would end up taking the lead from McDowell on Turn 3 of Lap 16. It wouldn’t be long until the next caution, however, as loose debris would cause another yellow flag.
After that caution, Miguel Paludo was the new leader, with Patrick running in second place. Patrick would make her move on Paludo on Turn 3 of Lap 21 to take the lead, but a little slide by Patrick in Turn 5 would give the lead right back to Paludo.
Another caution would take place when Kenny Habul went into the tire wall at Turn 5. Villeneuve was in the lead at the time. With the leaders pitting, Papis would be hit with a stop and go penalty and would have to return to the pits. Hornish Jr., who like many was trying to manage fuel, took the lead in Lap 33.
Turn 5 had some more action a little after that when Villeneuve was bumped in the back by McDowell. Villeneuve would drop from the top five all the way down to 22nd. Another caution involving Bell would slow everything down again. The leaders would pit again, hoping to make it the rest of the way with the fuel they had. This time Piquet Jr. would take the lead for the final time.
Allgaier would have an issue with his front left tire and wound up in the gravel on Turn 5 on Lap 37, hitting Busch on his way there. Points leader Elliot Sadler would get spun on Lap 39 and finished in 15th place. The series’ top rookie Austin Dillon remained second in the points with an 18th place finish. Dillon, who is 11 points behind Sadler, had issues with his car, which kept him out of contention.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has been in the middle of a major slump, finished 11th and remains third in points, 23 behind Sadler. Hornish Jr. and Whitt round out the top 5 in the standings, with Patrick holding firm in the 10th spot.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 85.171 mph.
Time of Race: 02 Hrs, 22 Mins, 35 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.258 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 5 for 8 laps.
Lead Changes: 9 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: N. Piquet Jr.(i) 1-2; M. McDowell(i) 3-4; R. Fellows 5-8; B. Scott 9-13; M. McDowell(i) 14-15; M. Papis 16; M. Paludo(i) 17-20; J. Villeneuve 21-30; S. Hornish Jr. 31-33; N. Piquet Jr.(i) 34-50.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): N. Piquet Jr.(i) 2 times for 19 laps; J. Villeneuve 1 time for 10 laps; B. Scott 1 time for 5 laps; M. McDowell(i) 2 times for 4 laps; M. Paludo(i) 1 time for 4 laps; R. Fellows 1 time for 4 laps; S. Hornish Jr. 1 time for 3 laps; M. Papis 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 10 in Points: E. Sadler – 517; A. Dillon # – 506; R. Stenhouse Jr. – 494; S. Hornish Jr. – 483; C. Whitt # – 442; J. Allgaier – 441; M. Annett – 414; M. Bliss – 364; B. Scott – 339; D. Patrick – 337