Owen Kelly has completed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen in 24th position, dodging the carnage that marred the Cheez-It 355.
After starting the 90-lap race as the first of the non-regular Sprint Cup drivers, Kelly initially found the car too tight in the front end. Making a change at the first pitstop, the Phoenix Racing crew were unable to dial the issue out of the car, Kelly being forced to muscle it through several of the tight turns.
The biggest incident to happen in front of Kelly came late in the race when his fellow Tasmanian, Marcos Ambrose got into the fence. Owen took avoiding action in the red and white Phoenix racer, but made light contact with Ambrose - in the process losing a number of positions to those cars that were following.
The aim for Kelly entering the weekend was to put together a solid race and bring the car home cleanly and on the lead lap. He had another close call prior to the Ambrose incident when Kasey Kahne had a hard hit into the fence.
Whilst he felt his pace would have put him further up the field, he was able to avoid the carnage and walked away with not only a clean car, but on the lead lap also.
Having never driven a NASCAR Sprint Cup machine before Friday’s practice, Kelly has reflected on the experience as being a career highlight - particularly qualifying ahead of many big names in the NASCAR world.
Kelly now moves onto the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for next weekend’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, where he will step into the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing Monster Energy car usually driven by today’s Sprint Cup winner, Kyle Busch.
Owen Kelly - #51 Phoenix Racing - 24th: “At the start, I was ultra-conservative, I really wanted to settle into a rhythm so that we could then work out what the strategy was going to be.
“The car was too tight heading into the carousel and I was having trouble turning it. During the pitstop we made a change, but that didn’t help too much.
“On a few of the restarts I got hung out into turn one and lost a few positions and then had to fight to make them back up again.
“I thought we’d probably end up about 15th overall, our pace was with those guys who were around there, but I lost a bunch of spots when Marcos (Ambrose) crashed.
“I could see him go around and was trying to avoid hitting him, but we just collected him on the way through. I reckon we lost about eight spots in jamming on the brakes to miss him. I also got some of the back end of Kasey’s (Kahne) crash as well.
“It was eventful out there - when some were going around in front of you, I’d try to avoid them, then the guys behind would be in the back of you, it was relentless.
“We came away with what we were looking for and that was to get through the race without damaging the car and finishing on the lead lap.”
On his first experience of NASCAR Sprint Cup: “It was an awesome experience - NASCAR is such a big sport over here it is hard to put into words.
“At one point, we were struggling with the front end and I looked into the mirror and Jeff Gordon was chasing me and pushing on my bumper to get by. I thought then ‘this is pretty cool, it’s not every week you get pushed around by Jeff Gordon.’
“That probably brought it home for me how big a deal this was. It was definitely the biggest race that I have ever been involved in.
“I’m thankful to the guys from Phoenix Racing for the opportunity, we didn’t get the result we were looking for in terms of position, but showed that we can be part of this deal.
“Having come here on Friday never driven a NASCAR Sprint Cup car before, never driven Watkins Glen before, contending with rain during practice and everything else, to look back on qualifying to be the best of the non-regular runners and survive all of that which happened today was a huge achievement.”
On next weekend, stepping back into the #54 JGR Monster Energy machine at Mid-Ohio: “It will be a bit different, that’s for sure. We’ll have about 200 horsepower less than the car I was in today. I really can’t wait to get back into the Monster Energy #54 next weekend, it should be another great weekend.
“I sat next to Kyle (Busch) in the Driver’s Meeting today and he said after yesterday (where Busch was involved in an incident in the #54) that he wasn’t sure what chassis we’d be using as that one is a bit banged up.
“Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the leading teams in the Nationwide Series and will give me a good car to work with, I am confident of that.”