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Friday, November 22, 2013
Nationwide season was a ride

By Brant James
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The Nationwide Series began in violence, nearly tragedy, and ended in inaction, nearly travesty.

For the 31 races in between, contenders such as Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler rose, but ultimately the season was defined by the utter dominance of the No. 22 Ford of Penske Racing and No. 54 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, and the driver championship that occurred in their shadow between Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.

Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon added a Nationwide Series championship ring to the one he won in the Camping World Truck Series.

Dillon continued his steady progression to Sprint Cup by winning the title, hauling the legendary stylized "3" with him, and Hornish just missed what would have been a career-redefining NASCAR championship as he headed into an offseason unemployed after a decade with Penske.

In a series designed to hone young talent for careers at NASCAR's top level, Sprint Cup, others emerged besides the 23-year-old Dillon, with 19-year-old Ryan Blaney -- the presumed replacement for Hornish -- winning a race and 21-year-old Kyle Larson acquitting himself well again in the biggest leap of his budding career.

A look back at the 2013 Nationwide season:

Daytona mayhem

Regan Smith was simply playing the last-lap game when he moved to block Brad Keselowski in the final stretch of the Nationwide opener at Daytona International Speedway.

It was just business and both acknowledged it. It became something more -- life and death -- when the ensuing melee sent Larson's race car gyrating through the catch fence and spewing metal, including a tire, suspension pieces, shrapnel and engine, into the seating area. More than 30 were injured, with 14 requiring hospitalization.

Austin Dillon proves himself again

If Dillon's pattern holds, he can pencil in a Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award next season and a driver title in 2015. Wait, that might not be completely realistic, he admitted: "That level is a little bit bigger of a jump, for sure. I'm looking forward to the challenge. I think definitely Rookie of the Year is definitely what we want to get next year."  But the 23-year-old grandson of team owner Richard Childress added a Nationwide title to his succinct but weighty résumé in holding off Hornish by three points for the crown.

Dillon, whose career has been maligned -- as recently as three weeks ago by erstwhile RCR teammate Kevin Harvick -- with subtle and direct charges of nepotism, validated yet again the benefit his family's station provided.

Dillon and crew chief Danny Stockman did not win a race after claiming two last season but turned plodding consistency into a formula for a championship against Hornish, who won a race but was just a tad less consistent. A tad (8.8 average finish for Dillon, 9 for Hornish Jr.) translated into the narrowest Nationwide tile margin since 1992 (albeit in a different points structure) and made Dillon the third to win the Nationwide and Truck titles, joining Greg Biffle and Johnny Benson.

Becoming the first to claim titles in all three of NASCAR's top series might not happen in two years, but he seemingly has time to make history again.

Cup pirates dominate

Sprint Cup regulars pilfered 26 wins in 33 races this season -- not counting two pinched by AJ Allmendinger, who ran a limited schedule in both series -- leaving sparse opportunities for trophies for Nationwide partisans. They were symbolic gestures, as points-gathering was done elsewhere. Smith led Nationwide regulars with two wins and finished third in points. Series champion Dillon didn't win a race, and Hornish won once and finished three points behind him.

Drivers have had to declare since 2011 for which series they wish to accrue points, meaning a Cup driver hasn't been able to win a Nationwide title since Keselowski in 2010, but their presence serves not only to skew the under series' title chase, but underscore the gulf between the top tier and uppermost developmental series. Still, the dynamic is unlikely to change soon, said NASCAR president Mike Helton.

"We believe that it's in NASCAR's best interest currently to have an open model for its three national series and not restrict who participates in them," he said. "Our general philosophy is to make our products be competitive and open, and we want to have the best competition, if it's for 400 miles or 300 miles, and the guy who ends up in Victory Lane is the guy who deserves to be there. … If the guy that wins the championship deserves to be the champion, whether he has a win or not, the emphasis was on him earning the championship as opposed to earning a win."

Penske gets a missing trophy

Roger Penske's scavenger hunt list is complete.

In adding a Nationwide owner's championship trophy, the legendary and legendarily successful owner earned the title as his No. 22 Ford outlasted the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Toyota.

It was a pitched battle, as Kyle Busch won 12 races in 26 attempts, but a record four drivers won races in the No. 22 -- Keselowski (six), Joey Logano (three), Allmendinger (two) and Blaney (one) -- as Penske edged JGR by a point. Logano's sixth-place finish at Homestead was enough to hold off JGR by a point as Busch finished third.

"Brad came to me two or three years ago, said, 'We're going to build a team,'" Penske said of Keselowski, who won "The Captain" drivers titles in Nationwide (2010) and Cup (2012). "Part of it was through the Nationwide. Three or four drivers helped us get to this championship, it's really something. … As I said to Brad, this kind of finishes it off."

Back to Ohio

A first visit to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington was well-received, and NASCAR has apparently found a durable replacement for Montreal, as the venue was added to the 2014 schedule.

Millennial

Keselowski hoisted the trophy at Richmond in the fall in what was the series' 1,000th race in series history.

Larson passes another test

The versatile and increasingly successful 21-year-old produced nine top-5s and four runner-up finishes -- including a thriller at Bristol, where he finished .023 of a second behind Busch -- in his first full season in the Nationwide Series to become the first product of the NASCAR diversity program to be named Rookie of the Year in a national touring series.

Finale no red

The exasperation was clear among members of Hornish's team and Penske Racing in general.

A multicar crash with just 17 laps left in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway caused a 12-lap caution period and numerous aborted attempts at a restart -- two as track works attempted to dislodge absorbent powder from a bucket by slamming it on the track -- and series officials opted not to red-flag the race in which the two contenders for the driver's title were within five points and three positions of each other.

Laps fell away, wasted, and Hornish was swamped in the final five laps, finishing eighth (Dillon was 12th) and falling three points short of a championship. Hornish, who enters the offseason with no job, was pragmatic.

Dillon and NASCAR were unapologetic. Fans were left deflated in what felt like an unfulfilled end to an otherwise riveting title fight.