Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr. became only the fourth non-American to win at any level of NASCAR with victory at the Nationwide Series at Elkhart Lake. The second generation racer, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Renault F1 team in 2009 and had his image tarnished by the 'crash-gate' fiasco of Singapore 2008, has been working to rebuild his career in the United States and went some way to doing so with pole position and the checkered flag. The Camping World Truck Series regular, driving for Turner Motorsports, was making only his third appearance in the Nationwide Series.
“It’s difficult to say the right words,” Piquet Jr. said. “I knew I could do it, it was just a matter of being with the right team and the right people. I'm so happy to bring this first Brazilian win in the Nationwide Series. We're still missing the Truck one but it will come soon. I wish my family could be hereâ€¦ I miss you all.”
Piquet dominated the latter stages of the race, leading a race-high 19 laps and looked in total control.
“I struggled a little bit in the beginning. But when I got some clean air, I took control. I opened a little gap after the last restart and just maintained it. The car was great. I just had to be careful not to make any silly mistakes and just kept it clean. The car was great, the team is great. I have nothing to complain about!”
Behind Piquet, Michael McDowell was second for Joe Gibbs Racing, ahead of Canadian Ron Fellows, who recovered well after loosing time early on due to a puncture. The race will undoubtedly be remembered however for an incident-packed final lap, which saw NASCAR poster-girl Danica Patrick unceremoniously dumped out of a career-best fourth place by the guesting Jacques Villeneuve. Starting the last lap, Patrick managed to squeeze past Max Papis, the Italian's loss of momentum allowing the #22 Penske Dodge of Villeneuve to get alongside. The two cars then touched, pushing the 1997 Formula 1 champion momentarily onto the grass, before Villeneuve punted Patrick into the gravel from behind. The altercation dropped Danica down to 12th place, while Villeneuve lost out to Papis and Sam Hornish Jr.
Patrick presented a surprisingly calm exterior to the media, and refrained from making the comments seen on Twitter in the heated aftermath: Jeff Burton's crew-chief Drew Blickensderfer said “When racing Jacques Villenuve [sic] wreck him before he wrecks you,” while owner-driver David Stremme said “Someone needs to see if Jacques has a brain”.
“Look, I’m going to start off with a positive,” Patrick said. “I ran top-five all day. I took the lead for a brief moment until I learned my lesson down into Turn 5 when you try to get a little bit more out of the brake zone. So, that’s the bummer is that we weren’t able to finish that off and finish off with a top five like I feel that we all deserved.
“I don’t know, you all can make a decision for yourself about what you think happened there,” she added.
An aghast Tony Eury Jr. confronted Villeneuve after the race and criticised the Canadian for his lack of respect.
“Every time he comes over here and races, he pretty much has a car that looks like that [in a damaged state.] He's got a perfectly good, winning car, but he just can't finish it because he's not a good thinker,” Patrick's crew-chief said.
“I just expressed my displeasure in what happened there, and told him that if he's a great race-car driver then he needs to start driving like one and performing like one. Every time he's come here, he's either taken out Max, or he's taken out Danica. It's just a matter of courtesy and respect. I had to let him know that.”
This was a view shared by McDowell.
“I’m not trying to be a funny guy but your nerves get awful tight when the 22 [Villeneuve] is around you on these road course races. It’s like indoor karting; you just never know when your buddy’s going to run you over. I was glad he was far enough back that I didn’t see this white lightning ball coming down into Turn 5 on any of the rest of the restarts.”
For his part, Villeneuve was unrepentant.
“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 slow down that much in the grass, so by that time I was on the race track again, I was going a little bit faster than Danica. That’s all.”
Aside from the incident which dominated the headlines, there were plenty to talk about. After a water bottle got stuck under his pedals early on, Piquet's team-mate Justin Allgaier had a high speed trip into the gravel at turn 5, giving Kurt Busch a fright as the day-glo orange machine flashed across his nose. Allgaier would eventually recover to 10th, just one place ahead of reigning champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who struggled to get to grips with his Roush-Fenway Racing Mustang all weekend. Villeneuve himself was spun out by McDowell in the early stages, while the man of the hour also made contact with points leader Elliott Sadler, although on this occasion he was not to blame. Sadler was only able to salvage a miserable 15th after that, but at least finished ahead of his closest challenger in the points, Austin Dillon, after the rookie lost 3rd gear early on.