Penske Racing nearly pulled off the trinity Saturday night in Homestead.
What’s the trinity, you ask? Capturing the driver championship, the owners title AND the race itself in one night. Certainly not a small feat, though reachable — especially with a multi-car operation.
But after a pole position and a strong run all race, Sam Hornish, Jr. could not maintain the points gap he had gained on Austin Dillon after the start of the race, after Dillon was able to climb back within striking distance — and in the end, he was able to keep Hornish in his sights to the point that, although Hornish finished ahead of Dillon, it was the latter who earned the championship, severing Penske Racing’s chances for a three-peat.
In the end, Austin Dillon took the trophy that mattered most at the Ford EcoBoost 300, finishing a mere 12th but having beat Hornish by three points in the overall standings. That came despite no laps led all night from the eventual champion and a hard-fought race by Hornish and his No. 12 team. In the end, he couldn’t escape Dillon’s line of vision — at least, not enough.
Of course, Dillon might have had some unprompted assistance. The caution flew with 17 laps to go after a multi-car accident in turn four, and rather than red-flagging the race, NASCAR decided to run the event under caution for 12 laps before finally restarting with five laps to go. Rather than over 10 laps left during which the championship contenders could have duked it out, Dillon and Hornish needed only five laps before the finish, perhaps curtailing a battle for ultimate victory. Understandably, many fans weren’t pleased.
Penske Racing didn’t come away empty-handed, despite Hornish’s loss. The No. 22 team clinched the owners title by a mere point over Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 after a sixth-place run by Joey Logano, holding off the team despite a strong third-place finish by Gibbs’ Kyle Busch.
Oh, and then there was the race itself, won by Brad Keselowski in Penske’s part-time No. 48. Keselowski passed eventual Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson with three laps to go, scoring his seventh win of the season. Larson held on to second — his fourth runner-up finish in his rookie season — while Busch, Matt Kenseth and Trevor Bayne followed.
Logano, Parker Kligerman, Hornish, Cole Whitt and Nelson Piquet, Jr. rounded out the top 10.
- Alex Bowman may have gotten shafted by RAB Racing pre-Homestead, but at least his loss was the gain of someone fairly deserving. Blake Koch got his first chance in fairly solid equipment in the Nationwide Series and capitalized, qualifying on the outside pole and running inside the top 10 for part of the race before finishing 11th — his best finish in the series. Who knows if it’ll lead to something more, but one such chance is better than none at all.
- There’s no way around it — that 12-lap caution was just awful. NASCAR should always, ALWAYS make sure the track is clear of all hazards before resuming. Unfortunately, there was more to this. The race was very near its end, meaning a red flag would have been much preferred if it was tangible — which, in the case of a long caution period, it probably was. Let’s be real: no one knows if a longer run to the finish would have changed anything in terms of the title battles or the race win itself. The outcome may have ended up the same even if a red flag had flown, but that doesn’t change the fact that NASCAR should have kept such a long yellow flag run from happening — especially with the series title hanging in the balance.
- Hey, look! A champion without a win the entire season. That’s… kind of ugly, continuing to draw attention to Cup drivers’ dominance of the Nationwide Series while its full-time drivers remain unable to compete for wins in all but a few races out of the year. That said, Dillon’s victory in the championship isn’t the absolute worst. It’s not about who wins the most races — it’s about who earns the most points. Dillon did that. I can’t fault him.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Four top-10 finishes in 15 races, all of which were run with a team that rarely sniffed the top 10 in the past few seasons? Yeah, Cole Whitt wasn’t just the best of the race — call him one of, if not the best underdog performer of the year.
Start-and-parkers occupied five of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $81,664 in purse money.
Cup full-timers won the race, scored four of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied six of the 40 starting positions and took home $227,525 in purse money.
Best Career Finishes: Kyle Larson (2nd, tied), Blake Koch (11th), Corey LaJoie (34th)
The Final Word
I really don’t know what to think about the 2013 season, which is super fitting considering my ambiguous opinion of the final race. The racing was superb, but Keselowski topped Larson rather than allowing a first-time winner, and a 12-lap caution period threw off any momentum the race had up to that point.
Still, Austin Dillon isn’t an undesirable champion. He never won a race, but he scored the most points in the season, which is the object of a points race. Even if Cup regulars hadn’t won the majority of the races and Dillon still hadn’t won, there would be folks calling attention to it, as though it somehow devalues his win. It doesn’t. There’s no wrong way to win a championship. You win, and that’s that.
Will 2014 be more of the same? Will a champion again emerge from the Nationwide Series without winning a single race? Stay tuned; less than 100 days before the journey begins.
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