Commentary

Twin title battles taking shape

Updated: October 3, 2013, 4:52 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Penske Racing's margins for claiming both the Nationwide Series driver's and owner's championships have narrowed. The dearth of time remaining in the season could be a help in one case and a hindrance in the other.

While the organization continues to lead both sets of standings with five races remaining, a 17th-place finish by Sam Hornish Jr. last week at Dover reduced his lead over Austin Dillon in the driver standings to just 4 points preceding a Saturday race at Kansas Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).

A 6-point penalty assessed to the race-winning No. 22 Penske Ford from Dover gives Joe Gibbs Racing less to do as it pursues in the owner standings with the No. 54 Toyota. The No. 22, which has been taken to Victory Lane 11 times in 28 races this season by AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano holds a 28-point lead over the JGR contingent with five races remaining.

Team owner Roger Penske, who facilitated Hornish's transition to NASCAR following an IndyCar career in which he won three championships -- one for Penske -- said he believes it's important for his driver "being able to put something in the book" in stock cars. The owner's title seems particularly important to Penske, and more so to the lieutenants trying to provide one of his few remaining unrequited pursuits.

[+] EnlargeSam Hornish Jr.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesSam Hornish Jr. is hoping to close out a championship starting with a good run at Kansas.

"I think both cars have showed a tremendous amount of speed and consistency," Penske said. "I think we've got good cars. The crews have been excellent and this would be a great win for us if we could get both of those championships. We've had the driver's championship and never had the owner's, but when you're looking at a team like Childress and also racing Gibbs and Kyle Busch, you know you've got your work cut out for you."

Richard Childress Racing's Dillon, who has not led the Nationwide standings since finishing 12th at Watkins Glen on Aug. 10, may be the biggest threat to Penske's under-series sweep. The 2011 Truck series champion started and finished second last season in his only other start at Kansas and has been strong in a small sample at the remaining venues.

"I think it's going to take top-5 finishes, and by top-5 finishes, I don't mean you can finish fifth every weekend for the rest of the year and win the championship," Dillon said. "I think you need to finish in the top-three consistently. Sam Hornish Jr. and I are both really competitive, and in order to win the championship, the No. 3 team is going to have to finish ahead of him every weekend."

Hornish, who last season finished 12th in his first Nationwide start at Kansas, has been anticipating the final stretch of venues since midseason. He has two top-10s in seven starts at Texas, a top-10 in six starts at Charlotte, a win and three top-10s in six starts at Phoenix and a top-5 and two top-10s in five starts at Homestead.

"I know that we've got five races to go and we go to some tracks that I really like: Texas, Phoenix, Miami, Charlotte," he said. "There's not a place that I don't like that we're going to, so I'm really excited about what we've got."

Trouble is, Dillon could be also. In three Charlotte starts, he has a pole and a top-10, two top-5s and another top-10 in three starts at Texas, finished fourth and sixth twice in his last three bids at Phoenix and finished fifth last season in his only Nationwide start at Homestead. NASCAR's "loop data" suggests their progression toward Homestead will be contentious. Dillon leads the series in percentage of laps in the top 15 (91.7; Hornish is 89.7) and average start (5.1; Hornish is at 6).

The No. 22 has much more of a margin, even with Kyle Busch -- a 10-time winner in JGR's No.54 Toyota -- giving chase again this weekend. Logano's fourth straight Nationwide win at Dover gave the No. 22 Penske Ford its largest points lead of the season -- 34 points -- until the car "failed to meet the minimum front car heights," according to NASCAR. In addition to a $10,000 fine for crew chief Jeremy Bullins, Penske was docked 6 owner points.

The organization said in a statement that it had a "spring retaining screw back out" during the race, resulting in a 1/16th-inch transgression. Meanwhile, Keselowski, who has a team-leading five wins in the car, will make the start at Kansas. The No. 22 has won twice consecutively and three of the last four races.

"There may be a little bit of pressure to win this weekend," quipped Keselowski, who has five wins and two runner-up finishes in his last seven Nationwide starts this season. "You sure don't want to be the driver to break up a winning streak."

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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