And… one to go!
The close of Saturday afternoon’s ServiceMaster 200 at Phoenix International Raceway marked the conclusion of the penultimate race of the 2013 Nationwide Series season — and most importantly, the championship battle is still wide open.
Anything could have happened. Austin Dillon or Sam Hornish Jr. — or both — could have had early issues at the tricky Arizona track that knocked them out of the title race altogether. Likewise, Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski might have encountered problems that caused their teams’ owners title hopes to dwindle.
But in the long run, Keselowski was the only one with major issues, spurned by contact with Brian Scott almost three-fourths of the way through the race. Though he rebounded for a 19th-place finish, it didn’t matter much — Kyle Busch had won again.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was on cruise control for the first 79 laps, leading every single one until losing the lead on green flag pit stops. Though he dominated the majority of the event, Busch faced late competition from Keselowski and Justin Allgaier before taking back the point for good on lap 154. From there, it was smooth sailing — and 169 total laps led. The win allowed Busch’s No. 54 team to climb within four points of Keselowski’s No. 22 in the owners standings with one race left.
Meanwhile, the driver championship battle will last into the season finale after top-five finishes for both Austin Dillon (third) and Sam Hornish Jr. (fifth). Dillon ran up front for most of the race, while Hornish battled a lackluster car all day, making his fifth-place result all the more impressive. Heading into Homestead, Dillon leads Hornish by eight points — a margin approaching ‘comfortable,’ but certainly one not foolproof.
Allgaier finished second, while Regan Smith scored a quiet — but solid — fourth.
Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10.
-It’s kind of amazing that Justin Allgaier has remained in the Nationwide Series as long as he has sans much of a chance at the Sprint Cup Series before late this year, but if the rumors turn out true, he could finally be departing the series at the end of 2013. His second-place finish Saturday sends a strong message that he can compete with the best of the best despite a lackluster season. His runner-up spot was his best since Road America earlier this season, and it makes three top-10 finishes in four races for the Turner Scott driver.
-If there was one driver that could have challenged Kyle Busch toward the end, it was Brad Keselowski. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned for Penske’s No. 22 bunch following a run-in with Brian Scott that tore up the back end of his car. Before then, Keselowski had been running second for a great chunk of the race, even taking the lead for eight laps before Busch got back by him. I still wouldn’t have counted him out after some of the late-race cautions — except for, you know, the fact that he was involved in one of them.
-Kevin Swindell and Biagi DenBeste Racing are usually among the series’ best underdog competitors, scoring top finishes on a part-time, lower-budget basis. Phoenix, however, was not the team’s day. After starting 20th, Swindell brought out a caution on lap 138 after getting spun by Drew Herring. Fortunately, the damage was small enough that he was able to continue on — that is, until 11 laps later, when he backed his No. 98 into the fence again, this time crashing out for good. A momentary lapse by an otherwise stellar organization.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Mike Bliss came back from a lap down to finish on the lead lap in 17th and did an A-plus job avoiding a spinning Kevin Swindell late in the race, avoiding what could have been mayhem for both teams. You go, dude.
Start-and-parkers occupied six of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $103,610 in purse money.
Cup full-timers won the race, scored three of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied five of the 40 starting positions and took home $132,245 in purse money.
Best Career Finishes: Kelly Admiraal (31st)
The Final Word
It’s down to the wire! When the series visits Homestead for its final race of the season next week, two drivers — Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. — have real shots to win the championship, ensuring we’ll have a first-time champ in the series in 2013.
Despite who’s crowned, it’ll be a commentary on how the season has gone as a whole. No matter what, the champion will have no more than two wins all season — and could zero, if Dillon doesn’t visit victory lane next week. A winless champion isn’t exactly an indicator of the strength of a series; if Hornish wins, at least the records in history will show that the champion won something. Phoenix was a perfect indicator of the season as a whole, with both drivers finishing incredibly strong — though never for the win.
That aside, either should be a good face of the series moving forward — even though there’s a good chance neither will race in the Nationwide Series in 2014. It’s crazy to think about, but it’s the truth nonetheless, with Dillon moving to Cup and Hornish without any announced plans for next season. An interesting future, indeed.
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