Friday, Sep 22

Owen Kelly and Monster Energy Finish Disappointing 23rd at Inaugural Mid-Ohio Event

Coming off a difficult finish last week at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, where they overcame a lap-one crash to finish 24th, the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) team was hopeful to end this week’s inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series event at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington with a better result. Unfortunately, what they ended up with was an unexpected last-lap incident that would force them to a final 23rd-place finishing position. The disappointing result also cost the JGR team its points lead in the season’s Owner’s Championship battle, moving them into second place behind Saturday’s race winners, the No. 22 Penske Racing team.

The race weekend started well with a second-row qualifying effort made when Kelly recorded an 84.551 second lap at 96.141 mph, placing the team in the third starting spot for the afternoon Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 event. As officials parked the team back in the garage area, however, it was discovered the No. 54’s right-front tire was going flat. It picked up a large metal piece, about two inches wide, which hindered the tire’s air pressure. NASCAR officials allowed the team to change the tire without penalty and they continued to take the green flag in third.

The event’s green-flag waved at the start of the 2.258-mile road-course event on what was scheduled to be a 90-lap event. Crew Chief Adam Stevens was immediately heard over the radio reporting to his driver, “You are the quickest, an 86.15 second lap.” Kelly was still positioned in third place as the Ohio race track is not one that could easily be passed on, so the team bided their time.

At lap 16, the No. 54 lost one position to the No. 12 of Sam Hornish Jr. and was now scored in fourth place. Kelly reported to the team a few laps later, under the first event caution, “The car isn’t bad. I’m trying not to spin the tires. We were tight earlier but good now. I don’t need any adjustments.” The team pitted on lap 21 for four fresh tires and gas. They returned to the racetrack in sixth place as two competitors did not visit pit road, leaving them at the front of the field to occupy those spots.

The race went back to green on lap 23 with a subsequent yellow again on lap 26, “Save fuel,” Stevens exclaimed. A message that would be heard many times through the race day, signifying fuel-strategy would be important at the end of the race.

Another event caution occurred at lap 29 and the No. 54 team remained on track, while the earlier two competitors who didn’t pit the previous event caution visited pit road, placing the Monster Energy machine back into fourth place on restart at lap 31. A subsequent caution period on lap 38 and Stevens reminded his rookie driver once more, “Save fuel.” Kelly responded, “The car is well balanced still. I’m tight driving into turn one, then loose in the middle of the turn, so I’m having to back up the entry. Where they are really beating me is the last turn. I’m trying to find the best line there. I’m able to keep the tires under me so I think we’ll be good on the long runs.”

Lap 41 saw the green flag wave and Kelly made an aggressive move to pass two cars and move into the second-place spot. Another yellow-flag period on lap 44 waved and the JGR No. 54 team remained on the racetrack to maintain position. After the lap 48 restart, however, the No. 54 moved off track too far in one of the turns and dropped to the fifth position. Under green conditions the team visited pit road for fuel, then leaving the pit area the No. 54 car stalled and Kelly delayed exiting pit road. The Monster Energy team would resume in the 23rd position.

The field was jumbled up at this point, due to some competitors pitting under green and some who remained on track. Another event caution at lap 62 and Stevens reminded his driver, “Save fuel and watch for debris.” Once all the competitors cycled through pit road and the positions stabilized, the No. 54 Monster Energy machine was recorded in the ninth position on lap 66. Kelly turned on the ‘burners’ and improved five positions over the next eight laps to fourth, where he settled in and prepared for the final laps of the race.

On lap 88 another yellow-flag period occurred. Stevens reported once more, “Save all the fuel you can. This thing is going to get ugly.” What Stevens didn’t know was that he foreshadowed his own team’s event finish. Originally set to be a 90-lap race event, would become an extended race when a green-white-checkered flag restart would be implemented after track cleanup. After the field took the green flag for the last time, Kelly immediately pursued the third-place position and achieved the spot with a clean pass on the No. 12 of Hornish Jr. Kelly then took the white flag with the rest of the field before making his last lap around the inaugural road-course event. Unfortunately what would have been a successful top-five finish, was thwarted, when the No. 12 car aggressively hit Kelly’s No. 54 machine in order to regain position, and sent it spinning into the gravel pit halfway through the final race lap.

The Monster Energy machine re-fired and completed the race event, but not before the majority of the field had passed them. The race event concluded at 94 total event laps, 212.252 miles and the No. 54 JGR team accepted a disappointing 23rd-place.

Kelly remarked post-race, “It was great to be competing with those guys at the head of the field. I think we showed we had the pace to be genuinely in the top three. It’s extremely disappointing the race ended the way in which it did, but overall we are happy with the weekend.”

The Monster Energy driver continued, “The pace we had on board the Monster Energy Toyota was strong from the time that we pulled the car off the truck at Mid-Ohio and that continued right through the weekend. To finish qualifying in third despite the slow puncture in our tire was a great outcome. It has been an amazing couple of weeks and I couldn’t be more thankful to the Joe Gibbs Racing operation, Toyota and Monster Energy for their support.”

The car owned by J.D. Gibbs dropped to second place in the Owner’s Point standings, now 22 points behind the No. 22 Roger Penske Ford.

Allmendinger and the No. 22 Ford won the event, his second victory in 10 career Nationwide Series starts. Michael McDowell followed in second while Hornish Jr., Max Papis and Brian Vickers rounded out the top-five finishers. There were seven caution periods for 18 laps of the race along with eight lead changes across seven drivers.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series competes again on August 23 in the Food City 250 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway with television broadcast starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Kyle Busch will make his 17th start of the year behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Camry.



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