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Saturday, November 9, 2013
Down to the wire in Nationwide

By Brant James
ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Austin Dillon's path to a Nationwide Series driver's championship got a bit smoother. Penske Racing's path to a similar destination and a first owners title got markedly more difficult.

And once again, Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch factored into both equations, dominating on Saturday in the Servicemaster 200. In winning his 12th race of the year and for the sixth time in the Nationwide Series at Phoenix International Raceway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver made a mid-race crash by Penske's Brad Keselowski even more damaging in the next-to-last race of the season in NASCAR's top-tier developmental series.

"It's fun to drive these cars. It's nice to come to the West Coast. I get a little more cheers than I do anywhere else," said Busch, who grew up in Las Vegas. "It's fun anywhere you go and we have a great time with it."

Busch led four times for 169 of 200 laps, beating Justin Allgaier by 4.347 seconds. He swept both Nationwide poles and race wins at Phoenix this season.

Austin Dillon
Nationwide Series points leader Austin Dillon bought a little breathing room over Sam Hornish Jr. at Phoenix, but the title will be settled in Homestead.

Richard Childress Racing's Dillon lost second place to Allgaier on the final lap, but increased his points lead over Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. from 6 to 8 heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday.

It could have been worse for Hornish, too.

He wrestled a balky No. 12 Ford for most of the race, but used a mid-race fuel strategy call to salvage a fifth-place finish in what was an underwhelming weekend for a driver with fond memories and past success at the 1-mile oval.

Still, it was a day of lost points for Penske, whose lead in the owners standings shrank from 26 to 4 after Keselowski was turned by Brian Scott on Lap 143, inflicting severe body damage to the No. 22 Ford that relegated it to a 19th-place finish.

While Hornish was disappointed and surprised not to have been better at a track where he claimed his first Nationwide win (of two all-time), he was able to salvage points by skipping a pit stop when the leaders pitted on a Lap 130 caution.

In a race and on a weekend where he was not happy with his car, what might have been a season-saving decision almost didn't happen.

"We were talking too much on the radio and the call might have been different than what happened," he said. "We were back and forth and it was all going to be on how many cars came [to the pits] ahead of us, and then by talking about it too much we just decided to stay. It really worked out well for us."

Hornish restarted second and held on to a top-five spot through several late restarts despite older tires. He had to hold off Matt Kenseth in the final laps, but commended the second-place driver in the Sprint Cup standings for his deportment.

"We should have been better than we were today, but it wasn't as good as we needed to be," Hornish said. "I'm looking forward to Homestead. I think we have a great opportunity to go down there, lead the most laps, win the race. I think it will take care of itself. We'll see."

Even that might not be enough to catch Dillon, who is winless this season but continues to churn out consistent quality finishes. Saturday marked his fifth top-five in his past seven starts and ninth top-10 in a 10-race span. While Hornish admitted he likely earned a better result than his car deserved, Dillon could have felt that he missed an opportunity. He chose not to feel that way.

"A point, as close in this deal, as tight as it is, is a point," he said. "So it's nice. If we can go out and run in front in the next race, we win in the championship."

Dillon, who pitted under the caution that Hornish used to recoup track position, restarted eighth but came quickly near the front field. He held the second spot through the final restarts before Allgaier caught him on the final lap. Dillon was so irked by Allgaier's pass that he walked to Allgaier's car to discuss it on pit road after the race.

He later said he understood Allgaier's motives as he attempts to hold onto fourth place in the driver standings.

"It would have been nice if he could have helped me out there, but you can't expect that," Dillon said. "We're racing hard and it's fine. We had a good run."