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Nationwide drivers brace for 'shark week' finish

August 16, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

First race on close-quarters road course has potential for bumps, bruises

LEXINGTON, Ohio -- The thought of a field of 40 cars barreling off toward a snug, 90-degree first turn for the first time is a daunting prospect. For Marcos Ambrose, it’s the finish of the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ inaugural event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that concerns him more than the start.

“The first lap may not be as intense as the last lap,” Ambrose said. “Our races tend to get in more of a frenzy by the end. It’s a bit like shark week: You throw a bit of bait in the water and it takes a while for the sharks to get excited, but by the end of it, it’s a real shark frenzy, a feeding frenzy, and that’s what it’s going to be on Saturday.”

The prospect of a rough-and-tumble race looms over Saturday’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the first ever for the series on the tight, technical 2.258-mile road course. While the drivers will have had eight hours and 30 minutes of practice before the green flag falls, the predicted complexion of the race is still a subject of widespread conjecture.

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Interestingly, the last two IndyCar races at Mid-Ohio have gone without a caution period. According to an informal straw poll, Nationwide drivers don’t expect a similar show.

“I don’t think I can say zero because anything is possible,” Brian Vickers, fifth in series points, said, “but if there is such thing as a 0.1 percent chance that we’re going to go caution-free, that’s about what it’s going to be. These cars are very different, and I’m not really familiar with IndyCar races here, but these cars have a lot more power, a lot less downforce, a lot more cars, a lot less grip. So it’s a lot more to manage. It’s going to be wild.”

One aspect is the unusual quirk this season’s schedule will throw at the field with road races on back-to-back weekends. Yet drivers insist there’s little carry-over from last Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen International because the track’s nature is so different from Mid-Ohio’s.

While both tracks feature a certain amount of elevation change, Mid-Ohio makes more of a direct comparison to Sonoma Raceway’s tight, intricate layout than the much faster turns and straightaways of the Glen. The Ohio circuit also provides fewer opportunities for overtaking, meaning drivers may be putting their cars’ full fenders to use Saturday afternoon.

“I think there’s certainly the potential for a full-contact race, but any time we go to these road courses there’s always potential for it,” said Regan Smith, third in the Nationwide standings. “At the Glen last weekend, there was potential but it seemed like for whatever reason, guys were minding their P’s and Q’s and being a little more polite than the previous road courses. It’s a situation here where there’s a lot of areas on the race track where it’s not a passing zone, but you can claim that you had your nose in on a guy. It just depends on how guys want to race on Saturday.”

Austin Dillon, the leader in the Nationwide Series standings, said he felt like the potential for chaos also existed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ inaugural event on Eldora Speedway’s dirt, but touted the field’s reputation as professionals for why that race had relatively few pitfalls.

Dillon won that ground-breaking race and has potential to make more history Saturday, but echoed Smith’s thoughts that the mood of the race may shake up the Nationwide Series title fight, where just 18 points separate the top five. 

“It just matters how everybody wakes up that morning, I feel like,” Dillon said. “If they want to have a caution-free race, we can all give and take and have a good race like that, or we’ll have a wild one where you see 10 wrecks at the end of the race.”

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