CLICK: Full race results from Phoenix
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Chase Elliott has successfully clinched the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship after finishing in fifth place in the DAV 200 at Phoenix International Speedway on Saturday, while the race win went to Brad Keselowski in a green-white chequered finish that saw the Penske driver overhaul longtime leader Kyle Busch in the final run to the line.
Having earlier claimed pole position in qualifying, Busch had led the field to the green flag under the bright afternoon skies of the Arizona skies, and the #54 was soon quickly pulled away to a strong early lead over Brad Keselowski who was having a tough early battle with Busch's young JGR team mate Erik Jones to keep hold of second place.
The race ran trouble-free to lap 37, when a tyre failure put Brennan Newberry into the wall hard on the exit of turn 4 to being out the first caution of the day, which was extended when a fire broke out within the crumpled right front suspension that stubbornly refused to be extinguished. The caution allowed the leaders to pit under yellow for the first time of the day, Busch and Keselowski resuming at the front ahead of Elliott Sadler and Ty Dillon after Jones dropped to the back of the lead lap in 21st place following a lugnut issue on the #20 followed by an uncontrolled wheel set loose on pit lane.
With his sights set firmly on locking out the title this weekend if he could, JR Motorsports' Chase Elliott took the restart on lap 46 in fifth place, while his only remaining challenger in the title battle Regan Smith found himself back in 11th place for the green flag after taking four tyres compared with those ahead who had opted for two. However he quickly improved by three spots to eighth, partly thanks to Trevor Bayne getting loose and sliding up into Brendan Gaughan. Both drivers were able to continue albeit with a slight loss of position.
Meanwhile Busch had been able to pull out a one second lead again at the front despite not feeling overly happy with the handling of his car during this stint, which came to an end on lap 82 when Landon Cassill had a front right tyre failure which sent him into the wall in a virtual reprise of Newberry's earlier incident, and after roughly the same number of laps as well, suggesting a definite end-of-life target for the tyres at Phoenix this weekend.
Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski both took four tyres this time around, but others opted for just two including Regan Smith who had taken the pain of a four-tyre stop last time around and now benefited from the speed of two-only which gave him the pleasure of winning the race off pit road to lead the race ahead of Arizona native Alex Bowman. Kyle Larson picked up third place, while Busch rejoined in fourth and Keselowski in fifth. Just behind them, Chase Elliott opted to change just the left-side tyres and took the restart on lap 90 in sixth place.
Smith was able to take off at the front, while Busch initially struggled in the dirty air behind Bowman and almost succumbed to Keselowski before he was finally able to clear the #5 JR Motorsports car for second place. Once that was done, the fresher tyres on the #54 made hunting down and passing Smith for the lead child's play, and Keselowski followed in his tracks to resume in second place on lap 93. Further back, the two-tyre stops weren't paying off for Larson and Elliott both of whom soon lost places to Elliott Sadler and Ty Dillon. As the race passed the halfway mark, Erik Jones was back up to ninth place ahead of Brian Scott.
The yellow flags were out again on lap 109 after Jamie Dick and Dakoda Armstrong went for synchronised spins after going through turn 4 side-by-side. Everyone was back on to pit road with two tyres the general order of the day this time around. Kyle Busch retained the lead, with Smith getting the jump on Keselowski for second. The Penske driver was followed in turn by Sadler, Dillon, Bayne, Jones, Scott and Gaughan with Ryan Reed beating Bowman to tenth spot and Chase Elliott dropping to 13th after opting for four tyres for the restart on lap 118.
Busch once again took off at the front while Keselowski and Sadler quickly hustled Smith out of their way. There was a scare for Chase Elliott who nearly ran into the back of Bowman as the field momentarily compressed heading to the green flag in a scene reminiscent of Friday night's disastrous Truck race start, but Elliott was able to step out and avoid contact and was soon moving back into the top ten on his full set of fresh tyres.
The extended green flag run came to an end with a debris caution on lap 165, with drivers urgently discussing whether to pit or try to stay out as a result. Busch headed for pit lane for a four-tyre stop, but Keselowski stayed out at the last moment along with Sadler and Bowman. Smith was the next man to follow Busch onto pit road, but he was able to beat Busch back out after opting for left-side tyres. Not that it mattered: the race resumed on lap 171 and it took Busch precisely one lap to jump up from fifth to second place, while Smith's gambit had backfired badly and saw him drop like a stone to the bottom of the top ten - crucially putting him behind Chase Elliott, who as a consequence was now provisionally in a position to clinch the title this weekend rather than taking it all the way to the season finale at Homestead.
Keselowski had little chance of preventing Busch from taking back the lead of the race again on lap 175 with 25 laps remaining. The #54 cruised to a three-second lead over the field and with all the pit strategies played out it seemed that the die was firmly cast and that the race would end with comparatively little drama - until suddenly Alex Bowman's car spluttered and ran dry, triggering a new caution just seconds before Busch was due to take the white flag that would have ended the race. Instead, everyone had to gird themselves for one last time as they faced a green-white-chequered overtime finish that would give Keselowski one more chance to challenge Busch for the race win.
Initially it looked as though Busch had the lead covered, but Keselowski stayed clamped to the rear fender of the #54 and as the cars came round and finally took the white flag he timed his move to perfection to slip past Busch on the inside of turn 1 to take the lead, somehow then managing to maintain it for the final mile to steal the win at the line by 0.141s despite Busch having dominated for 187 of the 206 laps. Elliott Sadler followed them home in third - his best result since Talladega in May - and Ty Dillon were next across the finish line in fourth.
Keselowski was frankly astonished to find himself headed for victory lane after having been shown to be so emphatically second best for virtually the entire race. "I thought Kyle was really, really good," Keselowski admitted. “If you would have told me that we were going to pass him on the last restart, I probably would not have thought that was going to be the case.
"I tried everything I could in turn 1, but I just couldn't keep pace with him. I don't know what happened in 3 and 4, but I was able to get beside him off of 4 and it was a drag race. We were able to get in front and it was just bringing it home.
"Kyle was really fast, probably a tenth or two faster than everybody. Then that yellow came out and I really don't know what happened - I think we grabbed a gear and he slipped," he suggested. "It was a little bit surreal, I really didn't even know the race was over. We were low on gas in that whole [GWC overtime] situation," he added after clinching his fifth win of 2014 and his 32nd victory in 215 NASCAR Nationwide Series races. He has finished fourth or better in all ten of his starts this season.
"The Monster Energy Camry was faster than everyone else, just not at the right time ... My car wouldn't quite turn on the restarts as good as it needed to," explained Busch of how the race had ended from his point of view. “We were a little bit better after we got a couple of laps going. Brad got his car to bend in the middle of 3 and 4 and got underneath me and got by me."
Busch was clearly furious at the last-minute caution called by NASCAR which he felt has been directly aimed at stopping him from clinching another win. “Pretty pathetic NASCAR throws these Kyle Busch cautions," he said after the race. "It's old and aggravating for us in this Nationwide Series, but, hey, it's their prerogative, it's their series and they get to do what they want to. I've just got to settle for second and miss our opportunity on an owner's championship this year."
As startling as Keselowski's out-of-the-blue last lap victory over Busch had been, it nonetheless couldn't overshadow the success of Chase Elliott who had successfully finished in fifth place, five spots ahead of Regan Smith, which meant that he holds an unassailable 52 point lead in the championship standings with only the season finale to go. That makes Elliott the youngest national series champion in NASCAR history at the age of 18 years, 11 months, 11 days - over a year younger than the previous record holder Brian Vickers had been when he clinched the 2003 title. Elliott is also the first rookie to ever win the title.
"This has just been an unbelievable season," said Elliott, who only graduated from high school in May. "I'm still in disbelief now ... I wasn't sure if it was okay to do a burnout lap or not, but I did one anyway because I was too excited not to!
"This truly has been a dream come true. We had no plans of racing Nationwide a year ago and were uncertain what our future was going to be. We've had a great season," he said in a case study of understatement.
"I never would have even believed this was in my future. At the beginning of this season I had only run a couple of truck races. I feel lot of this is just due to the group of guys I was able to work with. Those guys were bringing me super-fast cars every week."
"He's unbelievable," said Rick Hendrick, a co-owner of Elliott's race team JR Motorsports along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. "What a young man. What a pleasure he is. It's really neat to be a part of history."
Even Busch, disappointed as he was at losing the race, didn't begrudge Elliott some well-earned praise. "Obviously, Chase is a talented young man," Busch agreed. "It's great to see him win a championship. He'll be a force to be reckoned with for many years."
Elliott's father Bill won the 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, making them the fifth father/son combo to win NASCAR national series championships along with the Jarretts (Ned and Dale), Pettys (Lee and Richard), Pearsons (David and Larry) and Earnhardts (Dale and Dale Jr.).
With the 2014 drivers title decided, all that now remains in play is the owners championship with Keselowski's win in the Penske #22 meaning that it now holds a 29 point lead over the Joe Gibbs Racing #54. Joey Logano will take over the wheel of the #22 from Keselowski next weekend at Homestead.
"We have a great team," said Keselowski. "I'm proud to be a part of it. It's been a phenomenal year and I'm going to remember this one for a long time.
Full race results from Phoenix International Raceway
Current Nationwide Championship standings
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