Although NASCAR does not race with different classes of cars on track at the same time, there were unofficially two classes at Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Road America -- Carl Edwards and everybody else.
Edwards led 35 of 50 laps en route to his first Nationwide Series victory of the season, and the first for Ford in either the Sprint Cup or Nationwide divisions this season. This is his second in a row on a road course, as he also won at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve last August.
"My guys built an amazing race car," Edwards said. "That car is really, really fast, and a joy to drive. Learning the race track details was difficult, but I had help from a lot of guys."
It's been a busy weekend for Edwards who tested at Road America on Thursday, then traveled back to Sonoma, Calif. for Sprint Cup qualifying on Friday, and then making a return appearance to Road America today. He captured the pole position this morning.
With an elongated second half of the race including a 31-minute red flag, five full-course cautions (bringing the total to seven) and varying pit strategies, a number of drivers vaulted into contention from running in the midfield. Ron Fellows finished second ahead of Brendan Gaughan, series points leader Brad Keselowski, and series debutante Owen Kelly.
"We benefited from goofy restarts," Fellows said. "I'm thrilled to be second, because there are a lot of good cars in this race. 'Pops' (crew chief Tony Eury, Sr.) made a call to stay out, since we got good gas mileage."
Gaughan's surprise third place was welcomed with a hand-made driver name card in the media center.
"Good to be back, because I love this track!" said the thrilled Las Vegas native, who also learned today he and his wife are due to have a baby boy in the next few months. Gaughan first came to Road America while learning his craft in Skip Barber cars at ages 16 and 17.
Jacques Villeneuve, who was Edwards' toughest competitor for the course of the race, had a last lap engine failure and fell to an unrepresentative 25th place.
As expected, tempers and aggression ran high in this period. Two early cautions flew for minor incidents, but the last 25 laps witnessed the repair bills adding up on a number of cars.
After the third caution of the race, caused when Colin Braun became the first driver to beach his car in the turn 1 gravel, a nine-car pileup occurred at turn 6.
The bottleneck of cars having to get in single-file alignment from double-file through turn 5 saw a domino effect of cars crashing into each other. Cars that crested the hill into the blind left-hander at turn 6 and wound up with cosmetic or heavy damage included Braun, Mike Bliss, Alex Kennedy, Brian Scott, Stanton Barrett, Kyle Kelley, Tony Raines, Robb Brent, and Jason Leffler.
"Guys piled into the wreck," Gaughan explained. "You can't see over the crest, so you don't know. Somebody goes too deep and that happens."
The accident blocked the track and required a red flag to complete the cleanup, and then shifted to yellow immediately afterwards. Nearly an hour passed in total between the 31 minute, 33 second red flag and the subsequent yellow flag conditions.
"The track doesn't end at 5; if you get through there it's side by side, but 6 is not," Fellows said. "The car gets light on the brakes and falls away, and it's slick. It's no surprise this is where the red flag was. The gravel there is so close to the track."
Pit stops to ensure the field made the finish in the last 20 laps shuffled some of the leaders -- notably the dominant players in the race Edwards and Jacques Villeneuve -- to 13th place on back. That's when the fireworks started for their return to the front.
The most impressive of their maneuvers was a three-wide show into Canada Corner (turn 12). Edwards went to the outside of Patrick Long, with Villeneuve using his circuit expertise to complete the move down the inside of both of them into the right-hander.
"I was nervous about the back section, because the car didn't handle as well without the clean air," Edwards said. "I wondered, 'Is it called Canada Corner because if you miss it you'll be in Canada?' Well, I thought I'd end up in Canada there. Villeneuve just got me, since I thought I could out-brake the 90 (Long) on the left, but he went right and beat both of us."
Villeneuve led on the second to last restart but suffered some cosmetic damage that caused smoke from a tire rub on his left front tire. He was no match for a charging Edwards, who made the winning pass into turn 1. Both had recovered nicely from their mid-pack positions less than 10 laps earlier.
While Edwards had the field covered on the final restart with five laps to go, Villeneuve looked good for second in his first NASCAR start since Montreal last year, but it was the engine that proved his demise, not his tire rub. Fellows and Gaughan were left to take the top three positions.
"I could hear his motor spit while passing him on the last lap," Gaughan said.
Keselowski retains the series points lead by 237 markers over Edwards, with Nationwide Series-only driver Justin Allgaier third overall. Allgaier suffered a broken track bar and driveshaft on the second lap and spent most of the race in the garage for repairs. He finished 35th, 20 laps down.
While Keselowski, Paul Menard and Edwards will be off to Sonoma for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race there, the next stop for the Nationwide Series is next Saturday at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.
Loudon is a tried-and-true circuit for the Nationwide Series, but the top three finishers agreed Road America made a splash in its NASCAR revival.
Gaughan optimistically guessed a massive 90,000 in attendance, while NASCAR released an estimate of 50,000. Either way, there was no shortage of fans populated throughout the 4.048-mile circuit.
Race winner Edwards praised Wisconsin race fans and was thrilled with the opportunity to race at one of North America's finest road courses. His one suggestion was an alteration to extend pavement for runoff areas where the gravel is, but he followed up by saying he isn't a track designer.
"I loved racing at Milwaukee, and I was sick when (NASCAR) said we weren't going there," he said. "But here, I met a lot of fans. I'd say this is pretty good -- if not Milwaukee, there's no place better than here."