[media-credit name=”FMCM” align=”alignright” width=”293″][/media-credit]The NASCAR Nationwide Series will visit “the left coast” for Saturday’s running of the Royal Purple 300 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana-California. Like any event featuring one of NASCAR’s big three national touring series, there are some story lines attached to this race. Some of them are very interesting and at least one of them has the characteristics of a daytime soap opera.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
We already know what the number one NASCAR Nationwide Series story is going to be this weekend. It’s, of course, Rick Russell versus Jennifer Jo Cobb in a situation that has just hit another brand new level of bizarre.
In previous editions of this motorsports soap opera, Rick Russell, owner of 2nd Chance Motorsports, and Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing announced an alliance, for the 2011 season, with plans to run at least the first five Nationwide Series races with hopes of attracting sponsorship for the full season.
Already trying to race under tight financial circumstances, the operation hit a major snag at the Las Vegas race where Cobb was caught up in a crash, not of her making, that caused considerable damage to the team’s only race car. Following the massive expenses of repairing the car, Russell apparently decided it would be best to start and park at Bristol, a track notorious for sheet metal damage, and have the car ready for the Auto Club Speedway.
It’s at this point when team communication apparently fell apart. Russell claimed that everyone was told about the start and park plan during a team meeting the day before the Bristol race. Cobb later admitted that she had heard some “rumblings” about it but didn’t actually get the official word from Russell until literally minutes before the race last Saturday afternoon. Cobb further claims that she had already hired a pit crew and purchased tires for the Bristol event. Russell countered with these expenses were incurred “behind his back”. That’s when Cobb, along with her crew chief Steve Kuykendall, left the track. Cobb later released a statement saying she refused to start and park out of a sense of commitment to her sponsors, the fans and to NASCAR. Russell had driver Chris Lawson suit up, get into the car, run four laps and park it in the garage. He pocketed $16,000 plus for the minimal effort which was apparently enough to cover the repair costs from the previous weekend at Las Vegas. He later announced his intent to sue Cobb for breach of contract.
As they say on those late night television infomercials: “but wait, there’s more.” This soap opera developed an unexpected plot twist when Russell announced that he has filed an official police report against Cobb and her crew chief alleging larceny. Russell claims that Cobb and Kuykendall stole approximately $16,000 in race car parts from his race shop located in Mooresville-North Carolina.
In comments made to “ESPN Dot Com” on Tuesday, Russell said that police investigators located about half of the missing car parts, last Sunday, in a storage bin used by Cobb located near the race shop. “Both her and her crew chief said they didn’t know how it, (the car parts), got there,” Russell said adding “I’m in the race parts selling business. There were containers of parts, (in the storage bin), that came right off of my shelves with the prices still marked on them.”
Cobb later claimed that the storage bin actually belonged to Russell and that he agreed to let her and Steve Kuykendall relocate some of the parts there in order to clear some work space in the race shop. She further claimed this arrangement was made with Russell while their partnership still existed. She adamantly claims that there was no attempt to steal anything and that she told Russell on Sunday to take all of the parts that were his.
Both parties have clearly parted ways at this point. Russell has entered his #79 Ford, with driver Tim Andrews, sans sponsorship in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at the Auto Club Speedway. Cobb, earlier this week, said she will be driving the #41 Ford for Rick Ware Racing, also with no posted sponsor on the official entry list, on Saturday. She also intimated that she has been talking to “some people” and hopes to make an announcement regarding future plans soon.
It would appear that, at some point, the “L WORD”, that would be lawyers not losers, is going to play a prominent role in this motorsports soap opera. That’s too bad because it appears that both sides really can’t afford massive legal expenses right now. Then again, maybe the word loser does apply here because the only possible winners will be the lawyers.
Jennifer Jo Cobb, during a television interview on SPEED earlier in the week, appears to prefer an amicable resolution that would simply, and officially, dissolve the partnership, everyone wishes each other good luck and then move on and go racing. That’s actually a very good idea.
Again, you expect to hear a lot of commentary about this story prior to Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 Nationwide Series race.
Fortunately that’s not the only story line connected to Saturday’s race at the Auto Club Speedway. There has been a long time NASCAR Nationwide Series policy that states any team entrenched within the top thirty in series owner’s points will be awarded a guaranteed start in the next race on the schedule. During the first five races of any new NASCAR season this privilege is bestowed based on the owner’s points from the previous year. After race number five the current 2011 points becomes effective.
Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 at the Auto Club Speedway is race number five on the Nationwide Series schedule and the jockeying for position to stay in the all important top thirty could get most interesting. Going into Saturday there is only a three point separation between positions 27 through 31 in the current owner’s points. The teams in positions 28 through 30 are tied with 70 points each.
Then there’s the matter of who’s on the outside looking in. There are six teams within eight points of the 30th place cut off. They are led by 69 year old ageless wonder Morgan Shepherd. The owner/driver is currently 31st in the owner’s rankings just a mere two points away from a guaranteed start in the next series race at Texas.
Do you believe that Morgan Shepherd is going to drive his heart out at the Auto Club Speedway on Saturday? I do. Do you think every NASCAR Nationwide Series fan in the country is going to pulling for this fine gentleman to make the top thirty? So do I.
Speaking of points, how about Steve Turner’s teams and how well they’re doing in the Nationwide Series championship standings? Late last year Turner Motorsports announced they had acquired select assets of Braun Racing and planned to run three full time teams in the series in 2011. Turner entered a fourth car at Las Vegas for veteran Mark Martin who presented him with his first series’ win.
Turner Motorsports goes into Saturday’s race with driver Jason Leffler leading the points while his team mates, Justin Allgaier and Reed Sorenson, are third and fourth in the championship standings.
By the way, Leffler is really looking forward to returning to southern California and the Auto Club Speedway this weekend. That’s because it’s a homecoming for the driver. He’s from nearby Long Beach. He would love to win Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 with family and friends cheering him on from the grandstands. He’s also looking forward to visiting his favorite restaurant: In And Out Burgers. Apparently that’s the only burger joint that doesn’t have a franchise back east.
Steve Turner also arranged for Mark Martin to make another appearance in the Nationwide Series in his fourth team: the #32 Chevrolet. After winning at Las Vegas, Martin now has a series high 49 career wins and he wants to become the first driver to win 50 times. So does Kyle Busch who, after winning at Bristol last weekend, now has 45 Nationwide wins. Expect a little good natured ribbing between these two while at the Auto Club Speedway.
Their Nationwide Series career stats are remarkably close. Martin has 232 starts with a winning percentage of 21.1 percent. Busch has 206 starts with a win percentage of 21.8 percent. At the Auto Club Speedway Martin has two Nationwide starts and has made the best of them by scoring a win and a third place finish. Busch has 12 career starts at NASCAR’s home in southern California. He’s also made the best of the opportunity with four wins, seven top five finishes, nine top tens and two poles. Both men are the only drivers who have scored wins in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series while racing at the Auto Club Speedway.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
The Royal Purple 300 is 150 laps/300 miles around the Auto Club Speedway’s massive two mile, D shaped, oval.
There are 45 posted entries for the race vying for the 43 starting berths.
14 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they do not have a guaranteed starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of the top 30 in Nationwide Series owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to make Saturday’s race. Three of these drivers, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek, have past champion’s provisionals available to them if needed.
Kyle Busch is defending race champion from last year. He actually won both Nationwide Series events at the Auto Club Speedway in 2010.
The Royal Purple 300 will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network on Saturday beginning with the pre race show at 5 pm eastern time.