Clint Bowyer proved he could win the Nationwide Series championship as a front-runner, but he's probably glad Carl Edwards ran out of races.

And in a season whose early stages were dominated by Toyota, Kyle Busch tied Sam Ard's long-standing record of ten wins in a single season.

A model of consistency, Bowyer posted 29 top-ten finishes in 35 races, and though he won only one race - the rain-shortened event at Bristol in March - the driver of the #2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet steadily built a commanding lead throughout the season and held off a furious charge from Edwards over the final nine races.

After finishing 37th at Bristol in August, Edwards was third in the championship standings, trailing Bowyer by 241 points. But with nine straight top-five finishes - including victories at Richmond, Memphis, Phoenix and Homestead and runner-up results at California and Texas - Edwards closed the gap.

The win at Phoenix left Edwards 56 points behind the championship leader, but Bowyer perhaps preserved his championship in that race after sustaining heavy damage to the nose of his car during a restart on lap 79. Bowyer dropped as low as 24th in the running order but rallied to finish fourth and keep his points loss to Edwards to a minimum.

"That last week at Phoenix, I think that was probably the turning point for winning the championship," team owner Richard Childress said. "Those guys got in there and dug and dug, and that car was killed in the front end, and if we ever had luck on our side, it was that day - we didn't lose a radiator. And our Chevrolet Monte Carlo just did a great job, and Clint drove it back to the front, and a couple more laps might have won the race with it."

As a consequence, Bowyer held a 56-point lead entering the Ford 300 season finale at Homestead. Though Edwards won the race - good for 190 points - Bowyer kept his rival in sight, finished fifth after starting 13th and held on to the championship trophy by 21 points.

With Bowyer growing up in Emporia, Kan., and Edwards in Columbia, Mo., the series champion and runner-up long have had a healthy respect for each other.

"Carl is a hell of a race car driver," Bowyer said. "There's no way of getting around it. You know, I'm damn proud to be able to beat a race car driver like that and a team and an organization like he's got behind him. It says a lot about ours and the people that surround me.

"Carl, he's been a long-time friend from those days, and I think it's a true testament to the stepping stones of NASCAR. We both came from the weekly racing series, went through the regional touring series and he went to the truck series. Luckily I got the right phone call (from Childress) and went to the Nationwide Series. It's fun to be able to come back here, what, five, six years later and be able to race each other for championships. It really is fun."

Though Edwards won seven races, his victory total couldn't match that of Busch, who won his tenth race of the season at Texas to tie Ard's record set during his championship run in 1983. As soon as he climbed from his car in Fort Worth, Busch announced plans to donate $100,000 to Ard, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and struggling to pay his medical bills.

Busch's ten wins capped an extremely strong season for Toyota, which culminated in the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry winning the owners' championship with four drivers. Tony Stewart, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano all won races in the car, with Stewart leading the way with five.

The season wasn't without its speed bumps for the Toyota camp, however.

In July, NASCAR amended engine rules for the series, based on dynamometer testing and effectively cut Toyota's horsepower. In August at Michigan, the #18 and #20 JGR teams were penalised severely for attempting to manipulate the dyno numbers. Nevertheless, with its crew chief and car chief suspended indefinitely by NASCAR, the #20 Camry still managed to win the owners' championship by twelve points over the No. 2.

Despite competing in only 19 of 35 races, Landon Cassill won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of five top-ten finishes.

But the spotlight was on Bowyer, who won his first major NASCAR title. It wasn't until the sixth race of the season, a non-companion event at Nashville, that Bowyer took the championship lead for the first time. It was an advantage he would hold for the rest of the season.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News