Short of Tony Stewart, it’s hard to think of a more talented open-wheel transplant to the stock car racing realm than Sam Hornish, Jr. So it should come as no surprise that, now racing in the Nationwide Series and getting a chance to actually take part in driver development after being rushed to Cup racing in 2008, the former IndyCar champion finally broke through. Driving away from Brad Keselowski late in the going, it was the No. 12 car that cruised to the win at Phoenix on Saturday. Keselowski completed a 1-2 finish for Penske Racing, with Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounding out the top 5.
The newly-configured Phoenix International Raceway proved to be as treacherous as expected, with a rash of ugly wrecks dotting the 200-mile run. One of those effectively ended the battle for the 2011 Nationwide Series crown; contact between Elliott Sadler and Jason Leffler on lap 176 triggered a nasty five-car crash that destroyed the rear end of Sadler’s machine. Sadler’s misfortune, coupled with a top-5 finish from his rival means that Stenhouse can essentially clinch the title at Homestead by making the start (assuming the typical number of start-and-park entries make the trip to South Florida next week).
Heading into the final race, Stenhouse leads the standings by 41 points. While the top 10 in points is now set for the season, the battle for positions eight through 10 will be worth watching; Michael Annett, Brian Scott and Steven Wallace are separated by only seven markers.
Teammate Brad Keselowski noted that *Sam Hornish, Jr.* “has paid a lot of dues” in NASCAR, and it was certainly a well-deserved victory that Hornish claimed this Saturday, a decade after winning his first IndyCar race at the same PIR facility. Getting track position on a two-tire pit call inside of 70 laps to go, Hornish recovered from spinning his tires on the final restart of the race and held off the No. 22 car en route to Victory Lane, his first such win in major league competition since capturing an IndyCar race at Texas back in 2007. Hornish’s rumored full-time Nationwide deal for 2012 is still not official as of this weekend… so here’s hoping that the prospective sponsors realized this Saturday what they’re getting involved in. Hornish is a supremely talented wheelman, and Penske’s Dodges are stout. A full-time sponsor will have the No. 12 driver and car contending for a crown next year.
Meanwhile, the 2011 crown was all but awarded this weekend at Phoenix, even if the trophy ceremony will be held at Homestead. And as much as that was a product of Elliott Sadler’s misfortune, *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* came to play in the Arizona desert, and play he did. Showing no signs of stroking his way to a points finish, Stenhouse and the No. 6 team brought an A-list car to Phoenix, racing hard with it all afternoon. Finishing fifth, last year’s Rookie of the Year reflected in post-race comments not on how close he was to sealing this title up, but how disappointed he was that his team couldn’t bring home the win. That kind of attitude’s going to make for a fine Nationwide Series Champion. Amazing what a little hunger will do, isn’t it?
Between top-10 results for *Trevor Bayne*, *Ryan Truex* and *Justin Allgaier*, the youth movement in the Nationwide Series did well adapting to the new Phoenix. *Michael Annett’s* top-10 finish was his first since Bristol back in August.
*MacDonald Motorsports* rebounded from an ugly 2011 campaign by conserving equipment through much of this season, to the point that drivers like Scott Wimmer have been able to drive second cars for the organization. Sadly, such luck that’s kept the MacDonald fleet healthy for much of this season ran out this weekend. Reed Sorenson found trouble on lap 1, getting into the back of Brian Scott entering turn 3 and triggering a messy wreck before one lap was complete on Phoenix’s new layout. Sorenson was able to continue, Scott was not, but a short-lived continuance it was; lap 36 saw Sorenson’s No. 82 car again in the backstretch fence, a blown tire as a result of excessive brake heat ending his day early. What’s more, D.J. Kennington had the same fate befall him in the team’s No. 80 car on lap 85.
*Go Green Racing* was another independent Nationwide Series organization that left Phoenix with multiple damaged race cars, as the team’s entire fleet was parked before the first lap was completed. After the back of the field went helter-skelter, scattering in the midst of the Sorenson/Scott wreck on lap 1, both Matt Frahm and Tim Andrews in the Nos. 39 and 04 machines couldn’t avoid contact with spinning cars. That smashed both of the team’s Mustangs to pieces, leaving each one unable to continue after less than a mile of competition. Finishing 42nd and 43rd was the worst combined finish in team history in the time they’ve been fielding two cars.
*Derrike Cope* endured a vicious crash exiting turn 4 on lap 130 after suffering hard contact from Mike Bliss (Bliss remarked in a later interview that he had a tire fail exiting the corner); the No. 19 car rocketed into the No. 28 and slammed Cope’s machine into the fence. It was Cope’s worst result since an engine failure in Chicago two months ago. Of note, though, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner has a shot at finishing in the top 20 in points in a major NASCAR series for the first time since 1995.
It’s an incident that will be talked about all through the offseason. *Elliott Sadler* made a hard charge on the apron of the backstretch on lap 176, trying to pass both *Jason Leffler* and *Aric Almirola*. Sadler cleared the two cars, but visibly slowed after cutting ahead of Leffler’s machine entering turn 3 to avoid blowing the corner. Leffler, side-by-side with Almirola at the time, did not adjust his braking point and hit the back of Sadler’s machine, sending him spinning and catalyzing a nasty wreck that collected not only those three drivers, but the underfunded rides of *Morgan Shepherd* and *Jeremy Clements* as well. The wreck brought out the red flag and effectively ended Sadler’s pursuit of the Nationwide Series championship, while also threatening to prevent Shepherd from running the distance at Homestead next weekend. Almirola also was eliminated after winning the pole and leading 66 laps early.
But what was uglier was how quickly the ESPN telecast and crew moved to crucify Leffler for his involvement in the wreck, exclaiming “why did he do that” as the crash unfolded and wondering out loud why Sadler didn’t have “smoke coming from his ears” after the wreck. Even Jamie Little asked pointed questions of Leffler outside the medical center, asking more or less what he was thinking driving the way he did.
Sadler remarked in his post-wreck remarks that he was frustrated in part because Leffler didn’t show respect for the guys racing for the title and also that Leffler had nothing to race for. Um, hello? Leffler needs a job for next year. And while the longtime Nationwide Series vet wasn’t battling for the points crown this season, that doesn’t make his right to space on the track any more or less unalienable. Fact is, Sadler made a move off the racing surface. He did clear Leffler with his pass, but did so in a way that was the equivalent of being cut off on the highway. He cleared him in terms of space, then effectively came to a halt in front of Leffler’s car. Replays showed very clearly just how abruptly the No. 2 Chevy slowed in the corner, and that while Leffler made contact, the man behind the wheel of the No. 2 in this incident shares blame.
The wrecks were ugly, the ramifications on the points were ugly. But ugliest of all was the way this whole thing was handled. The way the broadcast booth and pit road crew treated this incident, Leffler was all but burned at the stake. And anyone that doesn’t think prospective employers and sponsors will remember that is kidding themselves. The TV crew clearly picking winners and losers is a major, major league issue, and that line was crossed, smeared and spat on this Saturday.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Blake Koch.* The only saving grace in a costly race for MacDonald Motorsports was that Blake Koch delivered a career-best performance on a day that the Rookie of the Year class uniformly outdid itself. With Ryan Truex making a late-season charge to steal the ROTY title and adding another top-10 finish to his resume this weekend, Koch quietly (and by quietly, not being on TV) came home in the 14th position… after equaling his career-best qualifying result of 13th. Koch has an average finish of 18.0 the past three races, easily his best such stretch of the season. And not to be left out, hats off to *Timmy Hill* for his own top-20 result (he finished 18th).
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $104,465 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored 4 of the top-10 finishing positions in Saturday’s race, occupied 5 of the 43 spots in the field, and took home $144,518 in purse money.
422 of 1,367 starting positions occupied (30.9%)
$8,991,315 dollars won
26 of 32 trophies collected (81.3%)
*Who You Didn’t See*
*Blake Koch*, *Michael Annett*, *Ricky Carmichael*, *Eric McClure*, *Mike Wallace*, *Kevin Lepage*, and *T.J. Duke* all ran the distance Saturday and were either not mentioned or only mentioned in passing over the course of the race. Of note among this crowd, Carmichael came home 15th, a career-best NNS result on an oval; Eric McClure had his best race of 2011, finishing 19th; Kevin Lepage scored his first top-20 result since the spring Bristol race of 2008; and T.J. Duke finished 23rd in his Nationwide Series debut.
*The Final Word*
* Was the racing at Phoenix really any better as a result of the much-ballyhooed reconfiguration? All that’s seemed to change was how dangerous the backstretch has become…with drivers able to slingshot along the apron and back into oncoming traffic, just in time for turn 3’s braking zone, there’s ample opportunity to crash on the backside of the track now. Then again, there was a huge melee on the old backstretch earlier this season in February’s Cup race. So, did anything change? Truth be told, the on-track product wasn’t much different.
* What was noticeable, though, was how again NASCAR (or in this case, puppet company ISC) were so honed in on what they were doing that they failed to consider all possibilities. Namely, that drivers wouldn’t race all over a huge, flat open area of asphalt on the backstretch. Was the old Phoenix really that bad? Or was this another case of the sanctioning body compensating for a tire provider that just can’t stack up?
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