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Road of unknowns awaits Nationwide regulars

June 22, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

Points leader Smith, others learn as they go in first road race of season

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- Just hours into the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ first day at Road America, it was clear that this weekend would be unlike any on the schedule.

It wasn’t just one factor, either.

There was the course. A 4.048-mile winding, looping track with 14 turns nestled deep in the Wisconsin woods, Road America had drivers marveling. From the meticulousness with which it was crafted to the idyllic town of Elkhart Lake (Population: 967) where it resides, there’s not a place on the Nationwide Series circuit quite like it.

There was the weather. It rained Friday, as it has rained several Fridays during the Nationwide season. On this day, though, crew members strapped Goodyear rain tires on to their respective machines. One windshield wiper was added to the front, and a flashing red light -- to help others with visibility -- was added to the back. Racing in the rain is allowed -- some would say encouraged -- on road courses.

"A lot of good road course racers are here. We don’t have Jacques Villeneuve to drive us crazy, but the field in general is so strong. It’s going to be as competitive a race as you’ll find anywhere."
--Nelson Piquet Jr.

There was the entry list. There are several almost unrecognizable names among the 40 entrants. Owen Kelly. Billy Johnson. Johnny O’Connell. They are known as road-course ringers and were brought in by multiple owners solely for this race.

All of which makes the Johnsonville Sausage 200 presented by Menards (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN) perhaps the most intriguing race of the season.

“Road America is very different than a lot of the road courses in North America,” said Michael McDowell, who finished second in the event here last season. “It’s one of the most, sort of what I call traditional (courses). … You think of the fast, narrow, daunting race tracks that North America used to be full of, and this is one of the great ones still left.”

Nestled on 640 acres, Road America is a place with its own vocabulary. There’s the long straightaway with the start/finish line before drivers turn right -- yes, right -- and head into Corvette Corral. They drive over a bridge, make a hard left, then another left to get to Johnsonville Bridge. Then it’s a sharp right-hand turn that puts them on Kettle Bottoms, a brief straight stretch before another hard right on Canada Corner that ultimately spits drivers back out onto the straightaway.

McDowell’s done the drill before. He’ll drive the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and joins Kelly, Johnson and O’Connell as a road-course specialist. Others brought to Road America for that reason include AJ Allmendinger and Derek White.

One name missing: Jacques Villeneuve, who made contact with Danica Patrick on the final lap to cause a big wreck in 2012, which added to a reputation NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers at Sonoma Raceway picked up on this weekend. Villeneuve is in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing entry for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

“A lot of good road course racers are here. We don’t have Jacques Villeneuve to drive us crazy, but the field in general is so strong,” said last year’s winner Nelson Piquet Jr. “It’s going to be as competitive a race as you’ll find anywhere.”

Piquet Jr. has positive memories of the track, given that his lone Nationwide Series victory occurred here last year. He wasn’t quite so optimistic Friday afternoon after posting a best average speed of 94.541 mph, good enough for 14th, in the opening practice session.

The opening session was run in rain, and it could be a precursor for the race.

Practice was delayed for 90 minutes due to lightning in the area, and that wasn’t the only bout of inclement weather. Rain fell hard and steadily, the wind whipped through the surrounding trees and roared down the straightaway, knocking over plastic trash cans and sending a couple of Porta-Johns skittering 30 feet down the pavement.

Crews struggled to keep their canopies over the cars during a strong weather surge that may be prevalent in the area again Saturday. Thunderstorms are expected in the morning and early afternoon.

“I’d rather it just stay dry,” said series points leader Regan Smith, a notion that was echoed by most drivers. “We’re able to drive in the wet, but then it becomes a whole ’nother deal. I was driving (during practice) and went around Turn 12 and looked in my mirror, and there was a car sideways coming straight at me. I’d rather not deal with conditions and guys driving over their head.”

Smith’s points lead over Sam Hornish Jr. grew to 58 points following his win last week at Michigan International Speedway. Still, though, the driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet has never raced Road America. In fact, only six drivers on the entry list have competed in tge three previous races here -- Justin Allgaier, Mike Bliss, Eric McClure, Michael McDowell, Brian Scott and Mike Wallace.

With so little cumulative experience at the track, drivers know just about anything can happen.

“A lot of people are still learning the race track,” Smith said. “For me personally, I know the car is better than I am because I’m not familiar with this place. But I’ll pick up on it quickly. We all will.”

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