Brendan Gaughan rallies to win Nationwide Series race at Road America; third NASCAR event ever run on rain tires

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – In a historic and one of the most exciting and action-packed races in NASCAR Nationwide Series annals, Brendan Gaughan rallied to win Saturday’s Gardner Denver 200 at Road America.

While Gaughan has eight wins in the Camping World Truck Series, this was his first career triumph in 98 career NNS starts, holding off a late charge from early and late race leader Alex Tagliani.

It was a historic day because most of the second half of the race was not only run in rain but also on wet weather tires, only the third time in NASCAR history that has occurred — and the first time in four years. The other two times were in 2008 and 2010 in NNS races at Montreal.

Gaughan admitted he “booted it twice” in the 53-lap green-white-checker race, running off the course early in the event, but kept digging, slipping and sliding his way to the finish.

“I love racing in the rain, it’s fun,” said Gaughan, who was in the 2010 Montreal race, and has driven in rain several other times in other series. “And when you’re good at it, it makes it even more fun.

“I haven’t smelled blood in a long time, that’s something I’ve been lacking lately, that killer attitude. When it started to rain, even without the wiper blade (was broken), I started to smell blood and said, ‘I’m coming.’

“It’s fun to watch guys who haven’t done it in the rain. They don’t understand the rain line, and fortunately for me, I did.”

While Gaughan was ecstatic, pole sitter Alex Tagliani was a bit more subdued. The Canadian driver led a good part  of the race (led 19 laps), only to run out of fuel on Lap 49.

“It’s what it is, it’s not in the cards,” Tagliani said. “You have to be quick, you have to have a good car and it has to be in the cards, and if it’s not, you just have to take whatever comes to you.”

With his car just past the pit entrance, Tagliani was able to roll it back the downward sloping front stretch, his pit crew pushed it into his stall, he took on gas and switched back to dry tires and drove up through the field from 24th to finish second, coming up .820 of a second behind Gaughan.

After making contact, Gaughan passed Chase Elliott for the lead on Lap 51 and held on for the remaining two laps.

Kevin O’Connell finished third, followed by Chase Elliott and J.J. Yeley.

Sixth through 10th were Jeremy Clements, Andy Lally, Landon Cassill, Elliott Sadler and Mike Bliss.

Tagliani earned the pole but quickly lost it before the race was even one lap old, yielding to Sam Hornish Jr., who led 25 laps but fell back late in the race to finish 12th.

On Lap 5, Gaughan was in second position but overdrove Turn 6 and ran off the track. He was quickly able to gather the car up and got back to racing, although he dropped four spots in the incident. Two laps later, Gaughan stopped on pit road to have grass that he picked up in the front of his Chevrolet Camaro’s grill removed by his pit crew.

On Lap 9, Dylan Kwasniewski had a virtually identical mishap to Gaughan’s in the same place, heading into Turn 6. To Kwasniewski’s credit, he was able to collect the car up and get back on track and only lost one spot, dropping from fourth to fifth.

Three laps later, Stanton Barrett crashed into the Turn 13 retaining wall, drawing a caution. On the same lap, Carlos Contreras spun Kenny Habul, but both drivers were able to continue on.

Such was not the case for Kwasniewski, however. As he went past Barrett, he shut off the motor to try and save fuel. But when he refired the motor in his Chevrolet Camaro, Kwasniewski could not get the car to go into gear, most likely a transmission issue. A wrecker pushed his car to the garage area to see if his team could replace the trans.

Nearing the end of Lap 17, Gaughan was in the lead and again went off-course, allowing Hornish to regain the lead while Gaughan dropped back to second.

Kwasniewski came back on the track on Lap 18 after the transmission in his car was changed. He was scored five laps behind the leaders.

A full course yellow caution period was called by NASCAR officials on Lap 25 when rain began. After two laps under yellow, NASCAR officials mandated that all teams pit on Lap 27 to switch from dry to wet weather tires.

The race resumed under green on Lap 29.

Also of note in the race, Elliott bounced back from having no practice time yesterday to replace a motor in his Chevrolet Camaro, qualified 12th and finished fourth.

Coming into Saturday’s event, three of the last four race winners at Road America had won the event from the pole.

On Lap 38, the race again was brought under caution conditions when Bobby Reuse appeared to run out of fuel, prompting a full-course yellow.

The race resumed on Lap 41.

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NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” — pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins (including a milestone 50th win), was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski