Race Weekend Central

Nationwide Series Breakdown: Ford 300

For the first time since 2005, a Nationwide Series regular was crowned a Nationwide Series champion…and he nearly won the race as well. Racing as aggressively as he has for much of the 2011 season, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made a hard charge past Carl Edwards late, but fell a car length short of catching Brad Keselowski in a spirited dash to the checkered flag. Keselowski scored his fifth win of the 2011 season Saturday, with Stenhouse, Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin rounding out the top 5.

Stenhouse entered Saturday needing only to finish 37th or better to clinch his first NASCAR championship, which came early courtesy of the usual fleet of start-and-parks at the back of the field. Stenhouse ended up leading a Roush Fenway Racing assault on the field which saw the Mustangs occupying three of the top 5 positions for much of the afternoon, until Bayne found trouble with the wall while rim-riding and losing a tire. Still, the three RFR drivers combined to lead 111 of the 200 circuits run. Elliott Sadler finished sixth in a strong conclusion to his 2011 campaign.

Nationwide Series Breakdown: Wypall 200

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, racing in the Nationwide Series and getting a chance to actually take part in driver development after being rushed to Cup racing in 2008, that the former IndyCar champion finally broke through, driving away from Brad Keselowski late in the going to 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.

Nationwide Series Breakdown: O’Reilly Challenge

When all was was said and done Saturday, Roush Fenway Racing had clinched the manufacturer’s championship in the Nationwide ranks for Ford. Just as expected. The only difference is…it wasn’t Carl Edwards who did the clinching.

Despite leading a race-high 157 laps, Edwards couldn’t close the deal for the final six. Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere on a late-race restart, stormed past Edwards, and held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin to score a long-awaited first NNS win. Hamlin, Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.

Now What? 2012 Looking Ambiguous, Ominous for the Nationwide Series

For all the steps forward the Nationwide Series has enjoyed in 2011, be it watching series regulars win four races or the championship being limited to Nationwide Series regulars (this will mark the first season since 2005 a Cup regular hasn’t contested the full NNS schedule), it’s hard to enjoy the final few races of this season. And that’s a damn shame, seeing as how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler are in the midst of the tightest championship battle this series has seen since that same 2005 season that saw Clint Bowyer stalk Martin Truex Jr., making up ground on the eventual champ over the final month of the season before falling short at Homestead.

Score Four for the Regulars: The Biggest Wins of 2011

There is no type of track on the Nationwide Series circuit that has played host to Cup dominance of the AAA ranks more than the intermediate oval, and of those Charlotte’s fall race has seen more than its share. After all, this was the race back in 2006 that saw Kevin Harvick clinch the Nationwide Series crown as the first in a stretch of five consecutive double dippers to win the minor league title while driving full-time in Cup. And it’s been six long years, dating back to 2004, since a Nationwide regular visited Charlotte’s victory lane in the fall race. It’s a depressing set of recent memories to have of a return to NASCAR’s hometown.

That being said, anyone that remembers back to 2004 still remembers Mike Bliss’ late three-wide charge to victory that left both Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in the wake of the Rockwell Automation Chevrolet, long before Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide program became the powerhouse it is today.

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