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Sam Hornish Jr. Lands at Joe Gibbs Racing in the 54

By Kelly Crandall – Coming off a 2013 season in which he nearly won the Nationwide Series championship, Sam Hornish Jr. was left without a ride when Penske Racing couldn’t find sponsorship to keep him behind the wheel.

Since early September Hornish has been searching for his next home in NASCAR, unwilling to head back to IndyCar where he came from, yet determined not to land where running 15th would be an acceptable day.

His search has finally come to an end as he lands in the best seat the NNS has to offer.

Hornish has been announced as the new driver of the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. He’ll split seat time with Kyle Busch, the primary driver of the machine who won 12 of the 26 races he was entered in last year.

“We’re excited to have someone of Sam’s caliber joining Kyle behind the wheel of the Monster Energy Camry this year,” said J.D. Gibbs, President of Joe Gibbs Racing. “We think we have a great team there with Monster Energy and Sam will be an outstanding addition. We lost out on the owner’s championship by just one point last year so our focus will be on trying to get that title back in 2014.”

Busch is the 2009 series champion and the winningest driver in NNS history. He’ll continue to run the majority of the schedule, as he’s previously done, with Hornish running the remaining races. Which JGR officials said Monday will be at least seven races.

Hornish will first get behind the wheel at Talladega in May. His six other races will be both events at Iowa, the road courses of Road America and Mid-Ohio, Chicagoland Speedway in July, and the Kentucky race in September.

“I’m exciting about driving the No. 54 Monster Energy car this year. It’s a great opportunity for me,” Hornish said in the team release. “It’s the best possible situation for me to jump into great equipment and have the opportunity to go right out and win. After working with Penske for 10 years and now to have the opportunity to partner with Joe Gibbs Racing, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

“These are great people, top notch. To partner with Kyle, and all this team provides, with the support of Joe and J.D., it provides me with everything I need to succeed. It’s also a phenomenal opportunity for me to partner with a market leader such as Monster Energy. The brand identity and fan following that goes along with this sponsor is super. I can’t wait to get into that car!”

The 2013 season was the second full-time year for Hornish who has 99 career NNS starts under his belt. Hornish battled Austin Dillon down to the season finale in Homestead last November for the title, coming up short after what some call a controversial caution and five lap finish.

It was the most successful and notable year for Hornish, who landed back in the NNS after unsuccessfully running three full years in the Sprint Cup Series with Penske Racing. The famed team owner brought the former Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion to NASCAR in 2007. In 2012 he finished fourth in NNS points after picking up his first career win late in the season.

Adam Stevens will return as the crew chief of the No. 54. He’s earned 23 career wins atop the pit box.

“This year will be fun with Sam and me behind the wheel of our Monster Energy Camry,” Busch said about the announcement. “Last year we lost the chance for another owner’s championship by a slim margin and I think you can expect a close battle again this season.

“Having an experienced guy in there to fill the role on a regular basis when I’m not there, gives Adam the opportunity for real consistency. Sam was a strong competitor last year and I look forward to having him on our side this season.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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Nationwide Series Storylines for 2014

By Brandon Butler – The ball has dropped and 2014 is officially here!

Meaning we leave behind 2013, which had brought us a memorable Nationwide Series season. From moments like the horrific Daytona crash, to the dogfight for the championship between Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr., there were certainly some great moments that made the 2013 NNS season memorable.

With 2014 here and the start of the new season just a month and a half away, lets take a look at some of the storylines for the upcoming season:

Who Will Replace Nationwide As The Title Sponsor In 2015? 

Nationwide Insurance announced in October that 2014 would be the final season that the insurance company would sponsor NASCAR’s number two series. Heading into next season, the question still remains, who will be the new title sponsor? NASCAR has been looking for potential sponsors since the announcement and there should news at some point in 2014.

Is 2014 Regan Smith’s Year to Win It All? 

With Austin Dillon headed to the Sprint Cup Series full-time and Sam Hornish Jr.’s 2014 plans uncertain, Regan Smith could be the favorite to win the NNS title in 2014. Smith was the only full-time NNS driver to win more than one race in 2013. The majority of the season was dominated by Cup veterans like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano.

As long as the JR Motorsports driver can win races and avoid a mid-season dry spell of bad luck finishes like he did in 2013, then more than likely he will be there at the end of the season competing for the title in 2014.

Ty Dillon Making His Step Up To Nationwide Series

As older brother Austin makes the jump to Cup in the iconic No. 3, younger brother Ty Dillon is going to move up to the NNS full-time in 2014. Ty has had some experience in the NNS running a limited schedule in 2013, so it’s going to be very fun to see what he can accomplish running the full schedule in 2014. He may very well be a dark horse contender for the title.

Will Sam Hornish Jr. Return to the Nationwide Series For Penske or Someone Else? 

After falling short of winning his first NASCAR title, Sam Hornish Jr. is now looking for a ride. With no sponsorship in place for Hornish after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Penske Racing owner Roger Penske has allowed him to speak with other teams about rides for next season.

We are now into the new year and time is beginning to run out for Hornish to make a decision. Hopefully he is able to find a ride either in the Nationwide or Sprint Cup Series.

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Chase Elliott Nears 2014 Announcement

By Matt Weaver — Hendrick Motorsports development driver Chase Elliott is close to announcing his plans for the 2014 season but is keeping them under wraps until they are set in stone.

A clue may be found in his participation in this weekend’s ARCA Racing Series open-test at Daytona International Speedway. The session, which includes over 70 entries, contains several prospects — like Elliott — who hopes to earn his NASCAR and ARCA superspeedway licenses.

And while a driver has to be at least 18-years-old to compete at Daytona or Talladega, they must also receive approval from the sanctioning body. This weekend’s test is also open to 16-and-17-year-olds and is an important first step.

It’s the same for 18-year-old Elliott, as all that separates him from full-time ARCA or NASCAR national touring eligibility is earning the restrictor plate track license.

“We’re not completely sure about our plans right now,” Elliott told Popular Speed on Dec. 8 prior to the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race. “We’re working on a lot of things right now and we’re looking for the funding that will really dictate what we’re going to do.”

Elliott had a breakout season in 2013, scoring his first victories in both ARCA and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Pocono International Raceway and the road course at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park respectively.

In a Wednesday interview with Speed 51’s Bob Dillner, Elliott reiterated the same verbiage but added that things could come together over the next few weeks.

“I’d hate to jinx anything before it’s done,” Elliott told Dillner. “I feel good about our opportunities.  I wish I could share what we have going on, but right now I can’t. I look forward to 2014 and I think things are heading in the right direction.

“We have to make sure that everybody does their job these next couple of weeks and hopefully we can get something together.”

The Daytona test begins on Friday and runs through Sunday.

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James Buescher Joins RAB Racing, Nationwide Series Next Season

By Matt Weaver — James Buescher is departing for the next stage of his career as the 2012 Camping World Truck Series champion announced on Friday that he was leaving long-time employer Turner Scott Motorsports and competing full-time in the Nationwide Series next season for RAB Racing.

Buescher will pilot the No. 99 Toyota most recently driven by Alex Bowman during the 2013 season.

Buescher, despite his vast experience is still just 23-years old and considered and a top NASCAR prospect. He is fresh off his third full-time season in a Truck and has scored six victories in 116 starts during that span. He has also earned a Nationwide Series victory — at Daytona International Speedway — back in 2012.

His exit from Turner Scott was amicable and the driver is grateful to his father-in-law, Steve Turner, for the opportunities associated with driving for his team.

“My first couple of years in NASCAR have been a dream come true, and I can’t thank Turner Scott Motorsports enough for the opportunity they have given me to develop my skills,” Buescher said in a news release. “I am very excited to be able to take the next step in my career, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about the opportunity that RAB Racing is giving me to run full time in the Nationwide Series.”

Scott reciprocated the good will towards Buescher in a separate TSM news release.

“I have always been supportive of James and I am very proud of everything that he has accomplished while driving for our team,” Turner said. “I am excited for James and his new opportunities, and everyone at TSM would like to wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Buescher will face his toughest challenge yet in finding success with RAB Racing next season. In 33 starts last year, RAB scored just two poles, two top-5s and six Top-10s with an average finish of 16.5. RAB Racing owner Robby Benton hopes Buescher is capable of turning his team into a perennial contender.

“Everyone at RAB Racing is honored to have James come on board to drive our No. 99 Toyota Camry,” Benton said. “James has a tremendous amount of talent and experience, and we feel like he will take our program to the next level. I’m looking forward to what will likely be a very special season, not only for our team, but all of our partners as well.”

The team has not yet released sponsorship details but veteran crew chief Chris Rice will stay on top of the pit box to oversee Buescher’s program.

Bowman has not yet announced plans for next season. He most recently tested for BK Racing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Sprint Cup Series competition test.

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Nationwide Series 2013 Year in Quotes Review

By Kelly Crandall – The 2013 Nationwide Series had some of the best talent in NASCAR today and it was on display every weekend.

There were 11 different winners and two first time winners in AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney. From horrifying crashes to incredible finishes, the NNS had a little bit of everything. And the championship battle was one of the closest in history.

In the end Austin Dillon won his first NNS title without a win, the first driver in history to accomplish the feat. He heads for the Sprint Cup Series next year while his championship rival, Sam Hornish Jr., is looking for a ride.

They were apart of some of the most memorable moments of the 33 races this past season.

Daytona: “I tried to throw a block – it’s Daytona, you want to go for the win here. I don’t know how you can play it any different other than concede second place, and I wasn’t willing to do that today,” Regan Smith

The finishes of the last few races at Daytona have been ones for the highlight reel. This year Smith was just yards from the finish line before a massive crash broke out behind him, starting after he threw a block on Brad Keselowski. The end result was Kyle Larson airborne, injured fans and a massive hole in the catchfence.

Phoenix: “I was almost nervous, feeling like it was my first win even though it was, I think, No. 52 in the series. It’s nice to be back,” Kyle Busch

A year after going winless while driving his own equipment, Busch was back in a Joe Gibbs Racing prepared car. Phoenix was the first of what would be 12 wins throughout the season, adding to his ever-growing win total.

Las Vegas: “I think I used more energy celebrating than I did actually driving the car today,” Sam Hornish Jr.

Drivers say very rarely do they get a car that is flawless but Hornish found himself with one in Vegas. He took full advantage of it for his second career win. Passing Kyle Busch to do so wasn’t too shabby either.

Bristol: “I didn’t want to move him or anything like that, I wanted to try to outrace him,” Kyle Larson on Kyle Busch

He’s been tagged as one of the most talented drivers to come along in recent years and he’s quickly moving through the NASCAR ranks. Larson is fearless and a quick study, which came in handy at Bristol when he tried to beat the track master. He came up just inches short.

California: “I just need to be careful. I want to win the championship as much as winning races,” Sam Hornish Jr.

The 2013 season had plenty of ‘what ifs’ for Hornish, including, ‘what if there weren’t Cup drivers in the series, how many wins would he have?’ Hornish consistently ran up front but fell short to his Penske teammates or Kyle Busch, such as in California. He was hunting the 54 down before scraping the wall, but he still managed a second place finish.

Texas: “You put an elite driver in an elite car and he should get elite results and that’s what you’re seeing,” Brad Keselowski on Kyle Busch

Busch ran wild on the NNS, again, in 2013 along with Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Busch however, always seemed to take the blunt of the negativity for winning too much. For Keselowski, it wasn’t all that surprising what Busch was able to do.

Richmond: “I went to talk to him, I was a little heated and the camera probably shows it, but he kicks me right below the belt, which I think is a below-the-belt type of shot,” Brian Scott on Nelson Piquet Jr.

It was one of the craziest moments of the season. After a run-in during the event, including after the checkered flag, both Scott and Piquet came together on pit road where Scott approached Piquet for his side of the story. That’s when cameras caught the two shoving each other and Piquet kicking Scott, well, below the belt.

Talladega: “I was having flashbacks, sitting on pit road – I’m not going to lie – when they were making the decision,” Regan Smith

The finish at Talladega was one that NASCAR fans hope for: three drivers crossing the line in a photo finish. NASCAR however, was left to then determine the winner and it was a decision that didn’t come quickly. The drivers were already back on pit road and waiting, giving Smith flashbacks to Talladega in 2008 when he thought he had beat Tony Stewart before NASCAR reviewed the tape and took the win away.

Darlington: “It’s kind of deceiving when you’re driving the stuff just exactly how good it is and how smart these guys are,” Kyle Busch on JGR equipment

With the amount of time that he wins, Busch has started to make it look easy. Especially coming off a year when he went winless in his own equipment. Giving him greater appreciation for the cars that JGR prepares for him.

Charlotte: “You’re always going to have these detractors and everybody saying that I don’t need to be in the Nationwide Series, but until all the rest of the Cup guys aren’t there, I’m going to be there. So, if I’m the only one that wins all the Nationwide races because the other Cup guys aren’t beating me, that’s their problem,” Kyle Busch

And because he wins so much, Busch hears about how he’s just beating up on the little guys. His Charlotte win was the sixth of the season and seventh at the speedway.

Dover: “I wanted to beat them really bad,” Joey Logano on Joe Gibbs Racing

A year ago Logano was in Dover’s Victory Lane with JGR. But this season he snapped the streak that he help create by beating the dominant Kyle Busch and other JGR drivers Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth.

Iowa: “I should have gotten married a long time ago,” Trevor Bayne

Expectations were high for Bayne as he took over the seat of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who won back-to-back Nationwide titles before moving to Sprint Cup. Bayne however, got off to a rocky start with just four top 10s in the first 10 races. Things started to level though both professional and personal for Bayne. He got married the week leading up to Iowa and then went out and scored his second career win.

Michigan: “Our hearts are with Jason Leffler’s family. We are going to donate a good proportion of our winnings to his son’s (trust fund). Jason is in a better place and is looking down on us today,” Regan Smith

NASCAR lost one of its stars this year when Jason Leffler lost his life in a sprint car accident in New Jersey. That upcoming weekend he was honored by his friends and racing family, including Smith who won at Michigan for his second win of the season. Smith climbed out of his car at the finish line and tapped then kissed the Leffler decal on his car.

Road America: “I wouldn’t have thought twice if he would have just kind of wrote it off and not called and went on,” AJ Allmendinger on Roger Penske

When NASCAR suspended Allmendinger for violating the substance abuse policy in July of 2012, his team owner never wavered in his support. So when NASCAR reinstated Allmendinger it was Penske who gave him a ride in the No. 22 for two races. Both came at road courses and Allmendinger made the best of his opportunity by winning.

Kentucky: “This is the type of car you get once a year if you are lucky. Driving this car I feel like Jimmie Johnson, this is a rocket,” Brad Keselowski

Between Keselowski and Kyle Busch, they could be the Jimmie Johnson of the NNS. They’re consistent winners and Keselowski was running away with his second win of the season before the assistance of a nasty rain shower forced NASCAR officials to call the race early and sealed the deal.

Daytona: “It’s fun to come back here and race again. It’s been a while and it’s always special to win at Daytona,” Matt Kenseth

For all the success that Kenseth was enjoying in the Cup Series, he added a NNS win in July at Daytona. He led 16 laps and was pushed by James Buescher to the win under a green-white-checkered finish. It was his 27th career NNS win.

New Hampshire: “You will not win this championship, mark my word,” Elliott Sadler to Regan Smith

After Smith turned Sadler on the final restart, as he was running third, Sadler took his anger to the garage. Approaching Smith he angrily yelled at the driver to watch his back. Sadler would never retaliate against Smith.

Chicagoland: “We’re here to win the championship, period, and I honestly think as good as we’ve been running the last month or so, I don’t think he’s going to run good enough to run with us anyway,” Elliott Sadler on Regan Smith

A week later Sadler still wasn’t happy about the incident and continued to talk to the talk. Neither would go on to win the championship as Smith finished third in points and Sadler fourth.

Indianapolis: “Whatever records are left – let me know and I’m going to try to put my name on them,” Kyle Busch

In just a short amount of time Kyle Busch has made himself one of the best drivers to ever sit in a NNS car. He’s broken nearly every record there is and has become the winningest driver in the series. With his eighth win of the season he broke the record for the most wins after starting from the pole.

Iowa: “I’ll tell you what, it’s been a hell of a day,” Brad Keselowski

He flew in from Pocono to be the only Cup driver in the field then battled back from overheating and a pit road penalty to score his third win of the season. It also came just hours after Ryan Blaney won the CWTS race in Keselowski’s truck.

Watkins Glen: “I was driving the crap out of the car trying to pressure Brad into making a mistake,” Sam Hornish Jr.

A week later Keselowski scored his fourth win of the season. And again his teammate finished second as bonus points towards the championship again slipped away.

Mid-Ohio: “I think I might be done, I’m one hundred percent for you guys,” AJ Allmendinger

Allmendinger was given two races in 2013 by team owner Roger Penske. He went out and won both of them.

Bristol: “Whether you’re booing or cheering, glad you’re here. Hope you’re booing more tomorrow when we take home another trophy,” Kyle Busch

No matter how many wins Busch has at Bristol, it’s still not a very friendly environment for him. After winning his second race of the weekend, ninth of the season, he addressed the crowd over the PA system about a possible clean sweep of the weekend.

Atlanta: “Kyle Busch isn’t my favorite person, but I enjoy racing him,” Kevin Harvick

They’ve had drag out, knock down fights in the past. But they’ve also had clean hard racing. Atlanta was a great example of that, as Harvick charged past Busch for his first and only win of the season.

Richmond: “He went up there and stole it and, unfortunately, there was no consequences for breaking the rule this time,” Brian Scott on Brad Keselowski

For 239 laps Scott was perfect at Richmond and seemed to be heading towards his first career win. Until he said Keselowski jumped a restart to take the lead and the win.

Chicago: “Obviously a third’s not quite as good as we wanted to do but when you’re running for a championship you gotta take days like this,” Sam Hornish Jr.

If there was a statistic for the driver who finished the most behind Sprint Cup drivers, Hornish was probably at the top of that list. While he continually lost valuable points and wins, the upside was that Hornish was consistently giving them a run for their money.

Kentucky: “What he lacks in size he makes up for in being a big idiot each week. He’s fallen down the ride spectrum and it makes sense, it’s how he races,” Parker Kligerman on Cole Whitt

Racing hard in the closing laps for a top five finish, Kligerman was denied the chance to finish there when Whitt stuck his nose in the battle to make it three wide. Contact sent Kligerman into the wall and to a DNF, which he didn’t take kindly to.

Dover: “We had a fast race car. I don’t know what else I need to say,” Joey Logano

With a car as strong as Logano’s, there isn’t much to say. He won his fourth straight race at Dover after leading 106 of 200 laps. It was his third win of the season.

Kansas: “I got wrecked by a dirty driver. There’s no other way of putting it,” Brad Keselowski on Kyle Busch

The two are familiar with each other and have had problems in the past. When Busch appeared to intentionally spin Keselowski out, the driver quickly hopped from his machine and ran across the infield grass towards the 54 crew. Gesturing while he did so and later saying he would get his revenge.

Charlotte: “It’s very frustrating to be leading with 10 laps to go and pulling away from the 54 car, and not be able to win,” Sam Hornish Jr.

It appeared that Hornish was on his way to his second win of the season as well as ending the Kyle Busch stranglehold on Charlotte Motor Speedway. But then his car went away and Busch flew by for another win.

Texas: “The pressure is on him, obviously he keeps making mistakes,” Austin Dillon on Sam Hornish Jr.

As the championship battle continued to heat up, with less than 10 points separating the two, Hornish found himself repeatedly battling back. At Texas he fought for a third place finish after going a lap down after being busted for speeding on pit road.

Phoenix: “Once I got to the front it was sort of time to say goodnight,” Kyle Busch

That would be an understatement. Busch dominated Phoenix in a very uneventful race by leading 169 of 200 laps for his 12th win of the season.

Homestead: “This is pretty unacceptable,” Sam Hornish Jr. team radio

It was the moment that changed the complexion of the NNS championship. For much of the event Hornish was in control of his destiny as he ran ahead of point leader Dillon. But when a crash broke out with less than 20 laps to go, NASCAR decided not to red flag the race.

As they ran 12 laps under caution, outraged ensued. Including on Hornish’s radio, as they tried to come to grasps with the championship slipping away. The race was restarted with five laps to go with Dillon going on to claim the series title.

It was an unbelievable finish to a season that started the same way.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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Nationwide Series Future Remains Unknown

By Summer Bedgood – The NASCAR Nationwide Series will only be the NASCAR Nationwide Series for one more year, and fans will then be subject to something they have been resistant to as of late: change. With Nationwide Insurance leaving its sponsorship obligations at the end of the season, the door is now open for a wide range of sponsors to take over the title of NASCAR’s No. 2 series.

Sports Business Daily reports that NASCAR is asking $12 million to $15 million per year for the sponsorship. An additional $10 million in media and activation commitment would bring the hefty price tag to around $30 million a year. If NASCAR has its way, the deal will be in place for at least 10 years.

If you’ve been a NASCAR fan for a while now, you’ll recognize this as a “déjà vu” moment. When the “NASCAR Busch Series” lost Busch as their title sponsorship, we asked the same questions about what the name of the series would be from thence forward. At that time, several different companies were reportedly interested or in discussions with NASCAR, including KFC, Dunkin Donuts, AutoZone, and Subway. In fact, SBJ says Subway was close to a deal before they decided that they weren’t interested.

If we’re being honest, it’s kind of fun to toy with the idea of various companies involved and imagining hearing what is now the Nationwide Series referred to as something else. The “NASCAR Subway Series”, the “NASCAR AutoZone Series.” Heck, there has been some discussions as to whether or not NAPA, who left Michael Waltrip Racing after the Richmond debacle, will decide instead to be a title sponsors of the Nationwide Series.

If remember when Busch first announced its departure from NASCAR at the end of the 2007 season and all the sticklers announced proudly, “I’m still going to call it the Busch Series!” Honestly, though, I thought the NASCAR Nationwide Series rolled off the tongue pretty well. It sounded less like corporate interference and highly similar to that of “NASCAR National Series”, which is what NASCAR’s secondary series used to be called anyways. In fact, unless you see the logo, you might not even think of Nationwide Insurance when you first hear the name.

Actually, the Sprint Cup Series isn’t much different. Though it doesn’t take any imagination to know that the “Sprint” in Sprint Cup Series refers to the cellphone company, the title could also be read as a “sprint to the finish” type of line. It was a very easy transition from the “NASCAR Nextel Cup Series” and, in my opinion, sounded a lot cooler.

The only title sponsor I’ve ever thought sounded a little awkward was the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Though I can speak and write it now without any hesitation, as it has by now become habit, it doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue as easily as the other two series. It doesn’t seem to “fit in” to the NASCAR mold as much as the other two. That’s not to say that I want to see Camping World leave the sport or be replaced, but it was just one of those changes that took a little longer to get used to.

So when it comes to the Nationwide Series, I’m going to hate to see Nationwide leave. They seemed to really embrace NASCAR and its drivers in their television ads, promotions, and the sport itself. They engaged with the fans and the title sponsor of the series seems to be one that even the longtime fans finally converted to. I very rarely hear anyone call it the “NASCAR Busch Series” anymore.

Though it might seem a little selfish, and somewhat ridiculous, to appeal to a sponsor because the name is easier to say, the sponsor will ultimately be the identity of the series. I won’t have any issues with the sport if we get the “NASCAR Subway Series” or the “NASCAR KFC Series”, especially if they engaged with the fans in the way that Nationwide and Busch did. I can’t imagine a company would spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a sport and not do so. However, you have to admit the “NASCAR AutoZone Series” or “NASCAR NAPA Series” would fit the motorsports mold moreso than other potential options.

Either way, though, I hope someone steps up to the plate soon. The sooner we know for sure who the sponsor will be, the sooner I can open up a Word document and type it over and over and over again. By the time 2015 rolls around, I’m determined to have already mastered the new name for NASCAR’s No. 2 series. Bring on the changes.

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Nationwide Finale Leaves Lingering Questions

By Summer Bedgood – The NASCAR Nationwide Series was without a doubt the most exciting championship battle of the Homestead weekend, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering that the Camping World Truck and Sprint Cup Series points were all but wrapped up. However, an eight point gap heading into the weekend was still a pretty small margin considering that Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. were equally matched all season.

The race as a whole was not bad either. Though most viewers probably turned on the race with high expectations, we didn’t see the dull parade laps that many expected to see at an intermediate track like Homestead. Surprisingly enough, despite the fact that drivers like Kyle Busch and eventual race winner Brad Keselowski were in it, the race was still competitive.

If you’re like me though, when the checkered flag fell at the end of the race, you were left wanting more. There was an empty feeling surrounding the race, even as yellow smoke wafted out from underneath Dillon’s tires on the frontstretch.

Perhaps it was the 12 lap caution period that left me feeling that way.

As the final race of the NNS came to a close, a multi-car crash ensued off turn four involving Regan Smith, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Clements, and Bryan Silas. The crash left a ton of debris and fluid on the track that would obviously require a lot of clean-up. So you would think the natural reaction from NASCAR would be to throw the red flag in order to not waste laps under caution during the championship race, right?

Apparently not, because NASCAR continued to allow the laps to wind down, even delaying the restart several times in order to allow the clean-up crew to continue to get the track clear for the drivers. What would have been a fifteen lap sprint to the finish was now a five-lap dash.

Dillon finished 12th while Hornish finished eighth. That four position gap wasn’t enough for Hornish to win the championship and Dillon would ultimately hold a three point lead over Hornish once the race was over.

Would the result have been any different had NASCAR called a red flag and allowed a restart for, say, 12 to go? If I’m being honest, probably not. Hornish had a terrible restart and lost several positions over the course of five laps. It’s entirely likely that Hornish could have lost even more positions had there been more laps and the championship points spread would have been larger.

It’s also possible that he could have gotten his stride back and picked up a couple more positions. It’s possible that Dillon could have gotten passed. Heck, forget the championship. It’s possible that we could have gotten to see a more exciting battle for the race win. Not that it wasn’t exciting, of course, but the possibilities are endless.

The point is that we don’t know what would have happened, and that is what was most frustrating. I know that last Saturday wasn’t the first instance this season where NASCAR allowed them to run under yellow for longer than they should have. It doesn’t matter. Fans should be able to see as many green flag laps as possible. It’s why they invented the green-white-checkered procedure and eventually added two more attempts. Though I know the purpose of the red flag is more to be a courtesy to the clean-up crew than the fans, if the clean-up is going to take longer than a normal caution period, why not just red flag it?

It’s interesting how often this “100% rule” continues to backfire on NASCAR, and I saw several references to that rule on social media as this hyper-caution-period debacle ensued in front of us. If they want drivers to give it all they’ve got, shouldn’t they do everything they can to make sure that they have the opportunity to do so?

If NASCAR doesn’t want drivers manipulating the outcome of a race, then they shouldn’t do so either. And I don’t think you can make a solid argument that allowing them to continue running down laps under yellow was anything but a manipulation of the race, whether deliberate or not. NASCAR would be wise not to let it happen again.

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

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Championship was Fitting End for Austin Dillon’s Nationwide Tenure

By Matt Weaver — When he was a child, Austin Dillon made the decision to follow in the family business of stock car racing and has been groomed ever since for the Sprint Cup Series by his father (Mike Dillon) and grandfather (Richard Childress).

And four years into his NASCAR national touring career, on the eve of Dillon’s graduation to Sprint Cup, virtually everything has gone according to plan.

Dillon captured the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship on Saturday night in dramatic fashion over Sam Hornish Jr. in what was the most recent goal achieved in the three-step plan to ready the elder Dillon brother for the highest level.

In 2011, Childress paired his progeny with crew chief Danny Stockman Jr. and together, they’ve won four races and two championships across both the Camping World Trucks and Nationwide tours. With that, Dillon now faces the challenge of becoming possibly the first-ever driver to win championships in all three National Tours — a feat that only he and Greg Biffle can currently accomplish.

Adding to the pressure is that he is likely going to arrive full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet for the first time since Dale Earnhardt drove that car during Speedweeks in 2001.

“That level is a little bit bigger of a jump for sure,” Dillon said of the Sprint Cup Series after the race. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. I definitely think Rookie of the Year is definitely what we want to get next year. That’s our main focus and to gain as much experience as I can.”

Dillon has met every challenge that has been presented to him thus far, winning the various races and championships. But Dillon credits the people around him for his success — the sponsors, crew and family at Richard Childress Racing.

“It’s obvious,” Dillon said. “My family, support from sponsors, guys like Danny Stockman, our crew at RCR. From (when) I was really young, I was always really competitive, hated to lose and I still do today.”

It appears set that when Dillon moves to the next level, it will be without Stockman. So in many ways, Saturday was the end of an era and a fitting one at that, ending in their second championship together. Stockman says that up to 80 percent of his team was with Dillon going back to their tenure in the Truck Series, making the Nationwide crown all the more special.

Now the attention is being placed on the Sprint Cup Series — just as it was always planned.

“The Cup Series is going to be fun to run,” Dillon said. “I feel like going out there, the guys that we’ve got a plan for, everything, we’ve got a plan.

“I feel like RCR has been very successful. Kevin Harvick has been runner-up to Jimmie Johnson for a long time. My dad was telling me a stat, the last six or seven years he’s been number two for the amount of finishes compared to Jimmie.  I’m really excited that RCR’s equipment and everybody is leading in the right direction.”

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XFINITY

Sam Hornish Jr. Left to Wonder What Could Have Been

By Kelly Crandall – For 12 long laps Sam Hornish Jr. was left powerless.

Idly running his No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford around Homestead-Miami Speedway under caution, laps clicking away, he was left to listen to his team rail about wasting laps. Questioning NASCAR. Calling for a red flag. Expressing the unacceptable nature of the situation.

Yet Hornish just listened. Perhaps thoughts to himself about how the 2013 Nationwide Series championship was slipping from his fingers. At one point calmly and almost quietly telling the team everything was fine.

But the Ford Ecoboost 300’s final caution was anything but fine for those watching. Up until that point Hornish had been in control of his championship destiny, outrunning rival and point leader Austin Dillon. But a hard crash off turn four on lap 184 of 200 changed everything.

And not just in a lyrical sense, it did change everything. As some of the leaders headed down pit road for tires, Dillon moved up in the running order. Swinging the championship back in his favor. Then NASCAR ran 12 laps under caution instead of displaying a red flag before restarting with five laps to go.

Dillon finished 12th and was crown the 2013 NNS champion. Hornish finished third and lost the championship by three points.

“Everybody on the radio was getting all flustered that there wasn’t a red flag and that there were so many laps of yellow.  It just seems like most of the time we would have stopped, but we weren’t good enough tonight to go out there and to win the race even though we felt like we were a top-four car, which we probably were,” Hornish said afterwards.

“That last restart the inside row didn’t get going very good and we got gobbled up because we had two cautions there right in a row where it allowed the guys that took tires to be able to get up to the back of us and we just couldn’t hold on.”

The Penske team was left in disbelief as to why NASCAR did not red flag the race. Instead choosing to waste laps under caution and not ensuring a battle to the end. Which had been playing out all night long with Dillon having to fight from behind because of an ill handling car.

Hornish meanwhile, put up a valiant fight in the last race, his last chance to take the title. He won the pole and led 37 laps, running in the top five the entire event. It was more a resemblance of the Hornish that started the season, who led the point standings for a total of 15 weeks.

His lone win in Las Vegas propelled him towards the title fight. His early consistency made him a serious contender for it. But mistakes and bad breaks took it from him, even as he dug hard on Saturday night. Inside, outside and up in the wall, Hornish stuck his 12 car wherever it would go and let the cards fall where they may.

“Then I looked in my mirror and I saw the 3 and the 33 (Ty Dillon) running side-by-side there and I was like, ‘Well, that’s gonna make it pretty hard for anybody to pass Austin (laughing),’ so that’s the name of the game and hat’s off to everybody over at Richard Childress Racing,” Hornish said.

“All of these guys that work at Team Penske did a great job for me.  I wish that we would have been able to bring it home, but to have the opportunity with about where we were at the halfway point of the last race out in Phoenix, this was a great opportunity.  I wish we could have done more for everybody at Alliance Truck Parts and the Wurth Group and Penske Racing for helping us out so much.”

The future of Hornish is unknown. But in 2014 he won’t be back with Penske as funding takes him out of his No. 12. He won a career two races with the company, whom he became successful with during his tenure in the IndyCar Series.

On Saturday, Penske said that Hornish does have options going forward. And Hornish acknowledged in the past weeks that he wants to stay in NASCAR, he does not have the desire to head back to IndyCar.

So as he gracefully climbed from his machine and held his head high, it was with the confidence that he’d done all he could do. A NASCAR championship, this year, wasn’t in the cards.

Making those 12 long laps even more gut-wrenching.

“You can’t give away points throughout the year like we did at times – some was the driver’s fault and some was the team’s fault and some was out of our control.  We had it for most of the night and I knew that Austin was obviously trying to take care of everything and make sure that he made it to the end, and then you had that late caution and a lot of guys had tires and came,” Hornish lamented.

“The 54 didn’t get a very good restart and we were a sitting duck on the bottom and couldn’t get far enough out away from anybody to make anything happen.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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XFINITY

Kyle Busch Shutting Down Nationwide Program

By Kelly Crandall – Following his third place finish Saturday night in Homestead, Kyle Busch acknowledged that he would not be running a Nationwide Series program for Kyle Busch Motorsports next season.

Funding being the culprit. Two years after their NNS inception, KBM shuts down. Driver Parker Kligerman has not made his 2014 plans known, with Busch most likely running NNS races in a Joe Gibbs prepared car again.

“There’s absolutely no funding in this world,” Busch said. “It really, really sucks. That’s why we’re open and in business.”

The plan for Busch next season is to still run KBM in the Camping World Truck Series. Darrell Wallace Jr. will run for the championship in the No. 54 with Busch and youngster Erik Jones splitting time in the No. 51. The company won the owners’ championship in the CWTS on Friday night.

In the NNS, KBM didn’t win a race this season. Their only career win came last season with Kurt Busch at helm in Richmond. Following the 2012 season in which he ran his own equipment, Busch went back to JGR prepared cars for 2013. He won 12 races.

Kligerman on the other hand, went winless in his No. 77. He finished seventh on Saturday and will be credited with a ninth place finish in the point standings. His season best finish was a third place at Road America.

“But when the economy turns, Joe Gibbs Racing shut my team down this offseason, Turner Scott Motorsports is shutting down Nationwide teams this year,” Busch said.

“It’s not due to lack of hard work, that’s for sure.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall