The title race has been officially over since last Saturday, and unofficially over since the spring, but Carl Edwards’ No. 60 team is finally hitting a stride that could have seen them put up a fight with Brad Keselowski had it come on earlier. Edwards led early and often on Saturday, running up front for 153 laps en route to an easy five-second victory at the Phoenix International Raceway, his second consecutive Nationwide Series victory. Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Keselowski and Reed Sorenson rounded out the top 5.
With only four cautions and the final 56 laps run under green on Saturday, it was a quick 200-mile affair. Edwards’ strongest challenge came from Kyle Busch, who ran second for much of the race’s second half before making an unscheduled pit stop for a punctured right front tire. Busch still managed to rebound to finish on the lead lap in 16th despite his machine also burning rear-end grease late in the going. The late-race recovery allowed the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team to maintain a 41-marker margin over Roger Penske’s No. 22 for the 2010 owners’ title.
A late-race incident between Aric Almirola and Justin Allgaier provided for some late-race drama, with Almirola bumping Allgaier out of the way for a spot in the top 10 late. Though Allgaier saved his machine and still delivered a top-10 finish himself, he expressed his displeasure by bumping Almirola after the race. The driver of the No. 88 also returned the favor, though the two drivers kept their post-race remarks in check. Nonetheless, it was an exciting microcosm of what will hopefully be a stout title fight in 2011.
While the *Almirola/Allgaier* episode was tame when compared to last week’s Burton/Gordon bout in the Lone Star State, there were multiple elements to celebrate in seeing the two drivers trade paint en route to sixth and eighth-place finishes on Saturday. Yes, there was a clear aggressor, with Almirola making hard contact to force his way past Allgaier in the closing laps. But despite the damage, both drivers were able to continue. Almirola and crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. demonstrated a continually developing chemistry, with the two using late-race pit strategy to move forward into the top 10. And Allgaier, for all the praise he rightly receives for conducting himself professionally on and off the track, showed some emotion and fire when he was wronged on it. With a 2011 season on the horizon that might have Cup regulars ineligible for the Nationwide title, fans have been told for years that those Cup drivers are needed to spice up the series. Hard racing between guys like Allgaier and Almirola will go a long way to prove that theory wrong. Looking forward to seeing more of it next season…
Though Carl Edwards and the No. 60 team continually take the headlines in the Roush Fenway Racing camp, it was their development program that also shone through at Phoenix. Despite the two making late-race contact, *Colin Braun* and *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* both notched top-10 finishes (seventh and ninth). The performance was noteworthy for both drivers, as their 2011 futures remain uncertain. It couldn’t hurt for the two to both run well not only in a race that each of them had their sponsors on the quarterpanels, but also to outrun Trevor Bayne (who still finished a solid 14th), the one driver outside of Edwards that has a certain seat in Roush’s NNS lineup for 2011.
*Cole Whitt’s* debut was made with relatively little fanfare on Saturday, but the results were impressive. Driving Red Bull Racing’s first NNS entry of the year, Whitt ran a clean race and finished in the top 15, on the lead lap (15th). The K&N Pro Series standout’s performance backed up his runs at the top of the practice chart at PIR, and also speaks volumes as to the potential the team’s driver development program is sitting on. Bet Scott Speed wishes they had thrown some more of those opportunities his way over the last few years.
*Mark Green’s* 2010 season has been a step up from the last, as his typical start-and-park role has been interposed with full-length races throughout the year. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been so stellar in recent weeks. Though Green broke a streak of back-to-back DNQs, his return lasted only 20 laps before the No. 70 car went up in smoke at Phoenix. The resulting 38th-place finish left the No. 70 collaborative effort between Jay Robinson Racing and ML Motorsports only 65 markers to the good of the top 30, leaving the door open for Michael McDowell and the No. 81 MacDonald Motorsports team to make a serious charge for a locked-in position at Homestead.
*Jason Leffler’s* affection for the Phoenix International Raceway is well known, but the results were not so kind to the Turner Motorsports driver this weekend. Despite a solid 11th-place qualifying effort that was his best since a ninth-place start at Richmond in September, Leffler’s motor expired 81 laps short of the finish. Those Hendrick motors that team ownership was crowing about at Texas can’t get here soon enough for the organization. As for Leffler, his 33rd-place result was a third consecutive finish outside the top 15 at the diamond in the desert.
There was a considerable number of start-and-parkers in Saturday’s race, with a number of notable new faces. One was *David Green*, who made a return to Nationwide Series competition in Jay Robinson Racing’s No. 49 car, his first start since Richmond last May. However, the day for the 1994 series champion was short-lived, as Green parked his machine only 11 laps after his brother Mark’s car expired, and only 28 laps after his other brother Jeff Green start-and-parked his own No. 36 Tri-Star Motorsports car. (All three Green brothers were out of the race by lap 31, and all finished outside the top 35). Further, *Tri-Star Motorsports’ No. 34 car* was also a member of the start-and-park brigade for the first time all season, as a spot in the top-30 in owner points is all but secure for 2011. Of note, the No. 34 car for the second consecutive week was not sporting Long John Silver’s colors, a possible indication that the team’s association with Front Row Motorsports has come to a close. Tri-Star already ran their No. 35 car unsponsored all year this season… whether they can keep that up for the next is going to be a big question mark.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Coleman Pressley.* Pressley turned heads back in the spring with back-to-back top-20 finishes at Richmond and Darlington in his first two starts with R3 Motorsports’ No. 23 team. Six months later, Pressley scored another one, coming home 17th in what was his best finish in any NNS event for any team since Nashville back in June. Pressley hasn’t returned to the seat of a JR Motorsports machine since making a few starts for the organization’s No. 88 car over the summer, leaving his 2011 future uncertain. Runs like Saturday’s will keep him in the conversation, where he definitely belongs.
*The Final Word*
* There weren’t 35,000 people at Phoenix.
* Reed Sorenson will win at least two races in 2011. Mark that prediction down now.
* Saturday’s race was most notable because, now that Brad Keselowski clinched the title back at Texas, there were no Cup drivers contending for the series crown this time around. Yet they still dominated the TV time and the finishing order, scoring the top four positions and leading all but 14 of the laps run. So how exactly will telling the Cup drivers that they can’t win the title, but can still run all the races, help the NNS regulars again?
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