If Joey Logano has taught the Nationwide Series anything in 2012, it’s that there is still no contest: Joe Gibbs Racing still has the strongest cars in the game. Though he was challenged late following a lap 198 crash triggered by championship contender Elliott Sadler, Logano was able to hold off JGR teammate Brian Vickers to score his ninth win of the 2012 season. Vickers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, and Austin Dillon rounded out the top-5 finishers.
For Sadler, Phoenix proved to be championship kryptonite for the second year in a row. Racing with Cole Whitt late, Sadler got loose and sent both himself and the No. 88 spinning between turns 3 and 4, collecting teammate Brendan Gaughan in the process. Heavy damage to the No. 2 car (the entire front clip was ripped off) left Sadler and crew a lap down at the finish, limping around at half speed and losing 20 points on new leader Stenhouse, who scored his third consecutive top-5 finish.
Leading by 20 markers heading into Homestead, Stenhouse sits poised to become the first Nationwide Series champ to defend his title since Martin Truex, Jr. in 2005. Austin Dillon remains mathematically eligible for the title heading to Miami as well, 25 points from the lead.
16th place. All *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* needs is a 16th-place finish to clinch his second consecutive Nationwide Series championship after scoring his fifth consecutive top-10 finish on Saturday. For Stenhouse and the No. 6 team, it’s been a remarkable turnaround. Able to weather the early storm of Elliott Sadler’s return to victory lane, the No. 6 team faded during the late spring with a four-race stretch of mechanical failures and on-track miscues between Charlotte and Road America that saw the team finish no better than 11th. Since then, Stenhouse has won three races and finished worst than 16th only once at Kentucky. In that race, he finished 17th and led 32 laps. That performance, with a bonus point, will get the job done next Saturday.
He may have come up short of teammate Logano in challenging for the win, but *Brian Vickers’* runner-up debut in JGR’s Nationwide equipment at Phoenix served notice to the rest of the field; the No. 20 team will be primed and ready to bring JGR their first Nationwide title since Kyle Busch in 2009. They have to be considered the front-runners heading to Daytona in 2013.
*Austin Dillon’s* sixth-place finish marked his 26th top-10 finish in 32 Nationwide starts this season, better even than current points leader Stenhouse. More importantly, with his teammate in the No. 2 fading down the stretch, Dillon now sits only five markers out of second place in the points with one race to go. Not too shabby for a rookie.
*Michael Annett* finished seventh for his 17th top-10 finish of the campaign, more than he had in his entire Nationwide career entering 2012… Brian Scott earned his career-best result in a Nationwide car at Phoenix (eighth) the day after winning the Truck race… Jason Leffler finished 12th in his return to Turner Motorsports, besting the efforts of Ryan Newman and James Buescher the last two weeks in the No. 30 car… Danica Patrick scored her second top-10 finish in the last three weeks, the first such stretch of her NASCAR career.
*Elliott Sadler,* to his credit, took full responsibility for the incident that took out his No. 2 car, along with Cole Whitt and Brendan Gaughan in the closing stages of this race. But having done that, there was no excuse for Sadler overdriving the way he did, no matter the ground he was about to lose to Stenhouse. (Also worth noting: he damaged his car during practice.) Wrecking at the same track that derailed his title hopes a year ago, and spoiling a chance at a decent run at the same track he returned to victory lane at back in February, Sadler all but buried his team heading to Homestead. No longer in control of their own destiny, Sadler and Co. will have to all but win on Saturday… and hope the No. 6 team gives them the same break they’ve given Stenhouse over the second half of 2012.
*Jeremy Clements* and the No. 51 team had to settle for 33rd after an oil pump failure… *Mike Harmon* ended up getting into a scrape with Kyle Busch even before he was able to start-and-park his No. 74 car… *Nur Ali* ended up getting removed from the No. 70 car in favor of Timmy Hill even before the race started following a crash in practice.
The Nationwide Series is a development series, and exactly where development drivers should be cutting their teeth. But having said that, NASCAR needs to look into a rule for bringing out multiple yellow flags over the course of a race. Both *John Blankenship* and *Noel Dowler* had wrecks in practice and were forced to backup machines before this race even started. Combined, the two drivers were responsible for six of the 10 yellow flags that slowed action at Phoenix on Saturday. Three yellow flags apiece, five of which were unassisted. That’s the very definition of lapped traffic having a direct impact on competition, especially given how trigger-happy NASCAR is with yellow flags these days. If my local dirt track enforces a limit on yellow flags a driver can bring out over the course of an event, it seems to make sense that a similar restriction would be in place at stock car racing’s premier level.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Jason Bowles.* A tip of the cap to Eric McClure for scoring only his second career top-20 at PIR; but for Bowles, a 17th-place run on one of the ovals he used to terrorize on the West Series circuit was his team’s best finish since Kentucky in September. For Bowles, who has made a steady climb from 22nd to 13th in points since finishing outside the top 25 in two of his first three events with MacDonald Motorsports, 2012 has to be considered a successful campaign. Here’s hoping the team sticks with him next year.
Start-and-parkers occupied 9 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $134,757 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 8 of the 43 starting positions, and took home $200,871 in purse money.
374 of 1,376 starting positions occupied (27.2%)
$7,707,705 dollars won
17 of 32 trophies collected (53.1%)
*The Final Word*
– Does Elliott Sadler’s meltdown at PIR this weekend diminish his prospects for wherever he ends up racing in 2013? There’s reason for concern; remember, the common denominator for all that went wrong for the No. 2 team this weekend, with the title on the line to boot was the driver.