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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Points battles tighten in Trucks, Nationwide after Phoenix races … is Cup next?

Associated Press photo

Carl Edwards has moved closer to Nationwide series points leader Clint Bowyer after winning Saturday at Phoenix, and hopes to catch up in a similar fashion to Jimmie Johnson in the Cup series after Sunday's race.

While not as hyped as many of the other tracks on the NASCAR schedule, Phoenix International Raceway (where the late Alan Kulwicki debuted his famous Polish Victory Lap in 1988) has shown over the past two decades that it can offer some of the better racing of the year.

So far this weekend, this challenging 1-mile track with a dogleg on the backstretch has lived up to that reputation, especially in an exciting Trucks series race Friday night that had more drama than anyone could have predicted. Johnny Benson came into this race only 6 points ahead of Ron Hornaday in the standings with two races left, so this weekend was important to both drivers.

Straight from the get-go, on lap 1, Hornaday tried to take the lead from Kyle Busch and it backfired, and he ended up with a severely demolished truck. (FYI: Though he tried to blame Busch for the crash after the race, this was clearly Hornaday’s fault, one of those rare times Busch was involved in a crash he did not bring about). So right from the beginning, it looked like Hornaday had given away the title, as Benson had caught only a small part of the wreck and escaped the wreck with minor damage.

But credit goes to Hornaday’s crew, who got the truck back on track only 30 laps later, allowing Hornaday to pass any trucks that would drop out of the race. As the night wore on, and some great racing took place from the front to the back of the field all night, many drivers found the wall as Hornaday was able to take home a 25th place finish.

Meanwhile, Benson found trouble himself at least three more times as the race wore on, and he ended up finishing 26th. So now, instead of a huge lead after Phoenix, he actually lost 3 points … leaving his lead at only 3 points heading into Homestead. That’s going to be a great battle and a great end to an already impressive Truck season. Benson will have extra incentive to win, as he’s just announced he will be leaving Bill Davis Racing after this season ends.

Another highlight of the race was Kyle Busch’s supersonic charge to second place (a la Jimmie Johnson a couple weeks ago in Cup) as the race came to a close because he took on new tires. Given a few more laps, he likely would have beaten winner Kevin Harvick. It’s amazing what some new Goodyears can do.

Kudos also go out to Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who drove his own team’s truck to a sixth-place finish Friday night. In a field full of established team, it’s quite impressive for a truck from newly formed Brad Keselowki Racing to be competing up front all night. It’s a testament to both Keselowski’s driving skill and the effort he’s put into his truck team.

Overall, the Nationwide race was less exciting, but we still got to see some championship drama as Clint Bowyer continues to struggle as the season comes to an end. Once he held a seemingly insurmountable points lead, but Carl Edwards has been determined to change that. After winning at Phoenix Saturday, he is only 56 points behind Bowyer, who made contact with another car during a restart and suffered significant damage. To Bowyer's credit, it could have been much worse, as he charged all the way up to 4th after repairing his damage. If he hadn’t, the points lead might have disappeared completely.

The most annoying thing in the Nationwide race is it appears many drivers have forgotten how to do a restart without crashing into the guy ahead of them. On two consecutive restarts, a bunch of cars got banged up for no apparent reason. You would think they’ve figured out how to do it by this point in their racing careers.

That brings us to the Cup series, where Jimmie Johnson was stinking up the points race for a while, until Edwards made it a little closer over the past couple weeks. I don’t see it happening, but it would be great for the fans and the sport in general if Johnson were to slip on Sunday. This way, we might actually have something to be excited about come Homestead.

Phoenix has already shown it can cause some damage if a driver makes a mistake, so we’ll see if Jimmie Johnson will be the next victim and create a third competitive points race when we get to South Florida.


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