The Frontstretch: Nationwide Breakdown: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge by Kevin Rutherford -- Sunday November 3, 2013

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Nationwide Breakdown: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge

Kevin Rutherford · Sunday November 3, 2013

 

Texas’ O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge may not have been the banger of a race the Nationwide Series needed, its return to action after a peculiar two-week break in late October.

But in terms of point races, few could have been better. With two races left, the series remains in a virtual stalemate for its title as both Sam Hornish, Jr. and Austin Dillon build their cases to claim the crown.

The drama of the Nationwide Series title chase just didn’t extend to the front of the field Sunday. Brad Keselowski brought his No. 22 Penske Ford into Victory Lane with ease, passing Denny Hamlin with 15 laps left and cruising to the checkered flag.

Too bad that drama didn’t unfold at the front of the field. Brad Keselowski, a Cup Series regular led 105 of 200 laps, paving the way for his sixth win of the season (and sixth in his last eight series starts). He inherited the lead for the second and final time with 15 laps to go, passing Denny Hamlin and holding off his fellow Cup regular by over a second.

Hornish Jr. was the highest Nationwide full-timer, in third with Matt Kenseth fourth and Austin Dillon fifth. Nationwide-only drivers filled out the next five spots, with Regan Smith, Brian Scott, Elliott Sadler, Kyle Larson and Brad Sweet rounding out the top 10. It was a valiant effort, by those running every week but Saturday marked the 24th time in 31 events a Cup Series full-timer stole the trophy.

The allure of this race, then resided in the main two championship battles of the series. Entering Texas, Dillon sat eight points ahead of his closest competitor, Hornish Jr. with a strong intermediate resume to back him up. Exiting the track? It’s Hornish who had the better finish. The open-wheel convert, still searching for a 2014 ride curtailed Dillon’s lead to six. That means head-to-head racing, for top finishes at all costs must continue between the two — perhaps all the way to Homestead. Rather than Dillon managing a crushing blow, with two races left Hornish held the upper hand. (Though it should be noted both finished in the top five, running near the front which showcased the momentum both teams have.)

On the owner points side, Keselowski’s No. 22 team vaulted back into the lead following a poor finish by Kyle Busch and his No. 54 organization. Busch could only manage a 26th-place result after crashing a little past halfway through the race, finishing four laps down at a track that’s haunted him in recent years (2011 parking ring a bell?).

The Good

Big ups to Sam Hornish, Jr. and Austin Dillon, who are making this title chase as thrilling as Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth on the Cup side. Neither are giving an inch, while both continue to put together strong finishes that, under some circumstances, might give them the championship unopposed. Sure, anything could happen with two races to go. With the way both are running, one minor slip-up — think of Kyle Busch’s wreck today, for instance — could spell the end. But if both can get through Phoenix still in contention, we’ll have a good race on our hands come Homestead, one of the closest this series has ever seen. It’s also really cool to know we’ll have a first-time champ by season’s end!

The Bad

Alex Bowman just couldn’t carry the momentum of winning a pole through the Nationwide Series race itself. He wound up 18th, one lap down and was never a factor up front.

Alex Bowman started from the pole for the second time at Texas this season, and at first, it looked like the series rookie could give RAB Racing one of its best runs of 2013. Unfortunately, Bowman dropped from the front almost immediately, leading only the first three laps before falling outside the top 10 completely. He was never able to replicate that qualifying success, finishing 18th — one lap down. At least the No. 99 team continues to show glimpses of promise; perhaps 2014 will bring better days.

Bowman wasn’t the only one with a disappointing finish. In his first Nationwide Series race of 2013, defending champ Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. could only manage a 17th after some late-race problems left him a lap down. Even girlfriend Danica Patrick on the pit box couldn’t provide an extra boost…

The Ugly

(insert Travis Pastrana joke here). Seriously, folks Travis’ first full season in the Nationwide Series has seen him regressing rather than progressing as of late. He’s now got six DNFs, all for wrecks and hasn’t run top 10 since Indianapolis in July. And that’s driving Roush Fenway Racing, top-tier equipment…

Underdog Performer of the Race: Kevin Swindell’s race didn’t start off on the right foot — he was running pretty far down in the running order for quite some time — but as he always seems to, he piloted the Biagi No. 98 back into the top 20 and ended up 16th, the last car on the lead lap. That’s not a spectacular finish, by any means, but there really wasn’t anyone else of note ahead of him.

Ill-Gotten Gains:

Start-and-parkers occupied six of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $82,198 in purse money.

Cup full-timers won the race, scored three of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied eight of the 40 starting positions and took home $233,655 in purse money.

Best Career Finishes: None.

The Final Word

It’s really fantastic how close the race to the Nationwide Series title has become with just two races to go. When the season started, a whole flurry of drivers were in the hunt for the championship, the most competitive bunch we’ve seen at the top of this division in several years. But as the season progressed, there were plenty of opportunities for this battle to go the way of the Camping World Truck Series. At times, one driver was dominating (remember Regan Smith’s seemingly insurmountable lead?) and the rest played catchup, hoping the top guy would falter.

Now, after a series of late-season surprises we’ve got a classic duel down the stretch. On one side is the driver once considered one of the best in the world, an Indianapolis 500 winner who lost his Cup ride but has been able to work his way back up to the top — even if his 2014 plans are unknown. On the other side sits an up-and-coming talent in the sport, one who’s already won a championship in the Truck Series and will be moving up as a rookie in Cup in 2014.

Sam Hornish, Jr. and Austin Dillon are very different drivers, and that’s what makes this title chase so entertaining. Let’s hope Phoenix is able to keep them close before an all-out brawl in Homestead.

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john
11/04/2013 12:47 PM
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Another Cup driver. BORING.

Steve
11/04/2013 06:34 PM
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77% of the races this season have been won by a Cup regular. Naaaa, there’s nothing wrong with the series.

Justin
11/04/2013 08:53 PM
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Hornish has only a single win this year, and Dillon is winless. Calling either one a champion hardly seems legitimate when Logano has 3 wins, Keselowski 6, and Busch 11. As much as I hate seeing cup guys steal championships as well as wins, it would at least make sense. Under the current system, the title is meaningless.