Joey Logano won the Great Clips 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday afternoon, the penultimate Nationwide Series race of 2012 - but it was a disastrous late crash for Elliott Sadler that had the biggest repercussions as far as his championship battle with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was concerned.
“Another great day, another great car that Adam Stevens prepared for me to go out there and try to win this thing,” said Logano, crediting his crew chief for the win. "To go out there and lock up most poles of the year was cool and obviously this locks up most wins on the year today, so I'm excited about that."
Logano and Kyle Busch had earlier led the field to the green flag, but while Logano got a good start Busch meanwhile flew off up high complaining of a lack of front grip, dropping to sixth place through the first two corners. It was just as well for him that the field went under caution seconds later for a spin by Noel Dowler between turns 3 and 4.
Logano took off again at the restart on lap 5, with Brian Vickers (in his first series outing for Joe Gibbs Racing), Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne slotting in behind him and Busch recovering to fifth place. Meanwhile, within the first dozen laps of the race Elliott Sadler was already up to 22nd place, after having to start from the back of the grid because of damaging his primary race car in qualifying and needing to break out the backup car for the race.
Contact with Mike Harmon's sluggish #74 cost Kyle Busch a couple more on lap 28 places, but the next actual caution was on lap 31 for John Blankenship spinning in turn 2. That proved acceptable timing for the field to make its first round of pit stops of the day, which allowed Brad Keselowski to pop up into second spot as Logano led the field back round to the restart line on lap 38.
Austin Dillon made a run on Keselowski for second at the green flag, only to get loose on the inside line forcing him to check up to avoid wrecking both cars. Not only did that release Keselowski, it nearly ended with Dillon getting rear-ended by his title rival Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as he fell back to seventh position. Meanwhile the other major player in the championship battle - Elliott Sadler - had suffered a slow pit stop and now found his backup car even less to his liking during this stint after the latest round of adjustment changes. Even so, he was able to hold on to a top 20 position.
Logano was still in the lead by the time the next caution materialised for a second spin by Blankenship on lap 70. That was despite a strong challenge for the top spot from Kasey Kahne who had displaced Keselowski in second, with Brian Vickers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch filling out the rest of the top six.
A new round of pit stops ensued under the caution, with Logano and Kahne winning the race off pit road taking two tyres apiece while Keselowski opted for four at the cost of dropping three places. Sadler's crew made up for their earlier tardiness and put the #2 back out in eighth place, but it was Stenhouse who inherited the lead by surprisingly staying out of pit road altogether.
Stenhouse made a fight of holding on to the lead at the restart on lap 75 but his worn tyres made it just a matter of time before Logano passed on the high side. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Kahne would pass him on the low groove, but the #38 didn't have the grip and had to back out of the move - dropping positions to Dillon and Keselowski but still managing to stay ahead of Sadler.
A new caution came out on lap 91 for a spin by Paulie Harraka in turn 4, which was a good stroke of fortune for Stenhouse who was able to come in for his deferred pit stop and was joined in pit road by Austin Dillon, Brendan Gaughan Jason Leffler and a handful of others.
Logano, Keselowski and Kahne all got away cleanly at the restart on lap 95, but Sadler had problems with low air pressure causing chattering on the right rear wheel of the #2. As a result, he found himself getting dangerously high and threatening to sail up into the wall: in backing off, he plummeted to 15th position and brushed the side of Justin Allgaier's #31 in the process before managing to slot in right behind the just-pitted Stenhouse. It was just the sort of restart he couldn't afford at this point of his ailing championship campaign.
A second spin for Noel Dowler on lap 120 saw a caution which allowed all the leaders to come onto pit road, knowing that they could make it to the end of the race from here on the one tank of gas. Keselowski won the race off pit road ahead of Logano, with Vickers, Stenhouse, Busch and Dillon filling out the rest of the top six on similar two-tyre calls. Kasey Kahne dropped several spots to 11th by opting for four tyres, while Elliott Sadler was still stuck just behind him in 12th place for the restart on lap 125.
Logano saw his chance to make a play to retake the lead as Keselowski came up behind two backmarkers, but before he could make his move one of the cars ahead - Mike Wallace - tapped the back of the other - Timmy Hill - and sent the latter into a spin that could easily have wiped out one or both of the leaders in the process. Fortunately no harm was done, although Logano was annoyed to find that NASCAR wasn't going to classify him in front of Keselowski for the restart.
The race resumed on lap 154 and Logano dealt with the frustration of not being awarded the lead of the race under the caution by immediately taking it with conspicuous ease at the green flag. In any case, Keselowski was in trouble: getting too high up the race track like Sadler and Busch had done before him, he lost multiple positions while trying to determine whether he had a tyre going down or not. There were several cars struggling through the first corners, but it was finally Sam Hornish Jr. going into a massive sideways slide with help from a tap from behind courtesy of Kyle Busch that finally brought out the yellows again on lap 156, which at least allowed Keselowski to make the call to come on to pit road for new tyres under somewhat calmer circumstances,
Logano maintained the lead at the next restart on lap 160, with the #18 ahead of Stenhouse, Vickers, Busch, Brian Scott, Danica Patrick and Michael Annett; this time it was Austin Dillon in eighth place who found himself with a handful as the pack jostled around him on all sides, and he fell back ten spots trying successfully to save the car from a full-blown wreck.
Instead, it was a third spin for John Blankenship that brought out the eighth caution of the afternoon. This time there were no takers among the leaders for pit road with just 24 laps remaining to the finish, although a struggling Danica Patrick came in for four fresh tyres after dropping to 13th place in the previous run; and at least Hornish was able to get his lap back through the lucky dog free pass after his previous spin.
At the restart on lap 182, Logano safely powered off into the distance while Stenhouse came perilously close to skating out of the high line like so many others before him in the race; he held it together but lost a hard duel with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers to drop to fourth place over the ensuing laps. That cost him two points in the championship over Dillon and Sadler, but Sadler had his own problems and nearly wrecked on lap 186 when he got wildly loose out of turn 4 onto the frontstretch. He nearly handed the championship on a plate to Stenhouse right there, but instead he managed to save the car at the cost of just one dropped spot.
Brian Vickers had just managed to wrest second place from Kyle Busch when the ninth caution of the day came out on lap 191 - and it was another hat-trick of yellows, this time for Noel Dowler whose #41 this time took a hefty front right impact into the wall in turns 3 and 4 to put his participation in the race at an end at last.
Logano took off at the restart with five laps to go, but Vickers clamped his #20 to the rear bumper of the #18 and stayed locked on target until he could line up a passing move on lap 197. But Logano was unwilling to come so far in the lead only to give up now, and he switched down to the low-line to counter-attack as Vickers' car got loose. Logano had enough to win back the lead and looked to have the whip hand to claim the win from there
"He got underneath me, and then I crossed him over off of four," explained Logano after the race. "And then I was able to clear in the middle of three and four, and it was like, 'Okay, I've got him now.' I think my car was good enough to take off."
But with two laps to go the battle became moot as the yellows were back out for a multiple-car crash in the midfield - and one of those cars was Elliott Sadler: he'd been running behind Justin Allgaier, side-by-side with Cole Whitt, when got up too high in turns 3 and 4 resulting in his tipping Whitt and himself into a spin. Both cars heavily damaged their rear ends against the wall, and then Brendan Gaughan arrived on the scene, slammed into the front of Sadler's car and sheared off the front end of the bodywork for good measure. All three cars sustained heavy damage - Whitt's by far the worst - and while Sadler was still moving and able to get back to pit lane, it was very bad news indeed for his championship hopes.
A lengthy red flag ensued for the clean-up, and then the race was in green-white-chequered conditions to decide the race result. It proved to be a perfunctory affair, with Logano blasting away at the front to claim the win and Vickers winning a brief side-by-side battle with Ricky Stenhouse for second place ahead of Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon.
“I guess the best way to describe it is pleased but not satisfied,” said Vickers, the 2003 Nationwide Series champion of his first run back in the series since being confirmed at JGR for a full-time return in 2013. "I just wanted more."
But further back, Sadler's crew had been unable to get the #2 car into a fit state to claim anything better than 22nd place - a body blow in the championship with both of his closest rivals finishing in the top six.
"I did it to myself," said Sadler, all too aware that it was here one year ago that a crash ended his 2011 title hopes in similar fashion. "I put my team in a hole, qualifying like I did. We tried to work on this car as much as we could, and I just got a little loose there, getting under the #88 ... I just wanted to say, 'My fault.' I should have done a better job for these guys."
Having come into this weekend's race tied on points in the lead of the championship battle, Sadler is now 20pts behind Stenhouse with just one race remaining with Dillon a further five points back. That margin should mean that Stenhouse will win his second consecutive series title next weekend at Homestead-Miami before his move to full-time Cup competition with Roush Fenway in 2013. But as Stenhouse pointed out, a major upset in the season finale could still change everything.
"We've got to keep doing what we're doing," he insisted. "We've given up 20 points in one race, so it's not even close to over," he pointed out. "It's going to be tough, because obviously I'm going to have to not push the limits as much as I like. I like going for race wins, too, so it's going to be a fine balance there."
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
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