LEXINGTON, Ohio (AP) — NASCAR Nationwide Series races can be treacherous, with large, fast cars competing for tight space in the corners.
Now imagine putting 40 of those four-wheeled missiles on a twisty road course with 13 turns over 2.25 miles of a narrow ribbon of pavement.
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No wonder almost everyone is expecting lots of rumpled fenders and crumpled trackside fences when the series races for the first time at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in the inaugural Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 on Saturday.
“There’s certainly the potential for a full-contact race,” Regan Smith, third in the driver points standings, said with laugh. “There’s a lot of areas on the race track where it’s probably not a passing zone, but you can claim that you had your nose in on the guy. It just depends on how guys want to race on Saturday — if they want to dive-bomb and be dirty, then you’re going to wreck the car in front of you.”
All of the top drivers — Austin Dillon, Sam Hornish Jr., Smith, Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers make up the top five in the standings — anticipate a wild day of racing in the 90-lap, 203-mile event contested over the rolling hills midway between Cleveland and Columbus.
During practice sessions on Thursday and Friday, several cars and drivers got a close-up look at the gravel areas off the track in the corners.
When the actual racing begins — qualifying is Saturday morning, with the race set for mid-afternoon — who knows what might happen?
Mid-Ohio is a challenge for those negotiating its turns during the annual IndyCar race at the track. And those cars are lighter and quicker.
Asked how difficult it will be to pass during this race, Vickers tried to be precise.
“I don’t think you can say it’s zero because anything is possible, but if there is such thing as a 0.1-percent chance that we’re going to go caution-free, that’s about what it’s going to be,” he said. “These cars are very different. I’m not familiar with IndyCar races here, but we have a lot more power and we have a lot less downforce. We have a lot more cars, and we have a lot less grip. It’s going to be wild.”
Normally, Ron Fellows would welcome the challenge of heavy traffic on a winding layout. He’s won four times on road courses in the Nationwide series, tying him for the record with NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Marcus Ambrose and Terry Labonte.
He said taking these stock cars through their paces over the changes in elevation and abrupt turns at Mid-Ohio is another animal entirely.
“You have to get the car slowed down to get through the turn,” he said. “There’s a little more finesse involved. But it should be very entertaining.”
Stopping just short of predicting a crazy race to the wire, he added, “Hopefully the last 10 laps don’t take 45 minutes or so, but it’s entirely possible.”
Dillon, who leads Hornish by just 3 points in the standings, will have a busy weekend. He’ll shuttle via helicopter between Ohio and Michigan, taking the place of the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. He’ll start in the back of the field at Mid-Ohio.
Dillon said he will not race in Michigan at the expense of his lead.
“No, we’re going to win the Nationwide Series. That is our main goal,” he said. “It obviously helps to start up front any race you’re at. But we’ll have a plan. If there was a better place to do it in the Cup race, Michigan is the place for me because I have a lot of laps there and confidence there.”
No one is happier about the debut of the Ohio race than native Buckeye Hornish.
“It’s wonderful, expanding our schedule and coming to a new racetrack and hopefully a place we’ll come to for many years,” he said. “I’ve had an opportunity to race a couple different kinds of cars here. Now I’m getting the opportunity to run a stock car and that’s right up there on my list.”
Several young patients at the race’s namesake were paired with drivers from near their hometowns, in Ohio and elsewhere. For instance, Hannah Hiller of Guilford, N.C., designed the paint job on Smith’s No. 7 Nationwide Children’s Hospital Chevrolet.
“It’s definitely one of the more unique designs that I’ve driven in my career, I can say that,” Smith said while trying to stifle a laugh. “She did a really nice job with the car. It’s all her favorite things, which include hearts, pink, zebras and lots of other very girly things.”
On a weekend of firsts, the design will just be one more for the Nationwide Series.