- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The Nationwide Series -- started in 1982 as the Busch Series -- hasn't seen tons of late-season drama as far as its championship battles have been concerned; at least not if you judge it by the number of times the points leader with two races left has failed to win the title.
The only time it happened was in 2003, when Riggs went into the final two races with a slim 21-point lead that Vickers was able to overcome in one of the best championship battles the series has seen.
After a few recent runaway performances by full-time Sprint Cup Series regulars who also ran for the Nationwide title, Bowyer and Edwards are at least making things interesting this season. But it's only become that way of late: Edwards has cut 150 points off Bowyer's lead in the past seven races, and 105 of those points have come down in the past two weeks.
Bowyer still has a 91-point lead heading into Saturday's Hefty Odor Block 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, so he has a bit more breathing room than Riggs had five years ago. And Bowyer knows what it's like to be in Edwards' position, as he was 120 points behind eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. in 2005. Bowyer pulled within 64 points but couldn't complete his rally.
Both drivers run well at this unique 1-mile facility. Bowyer has a win, four top-5s and five top-10s in seven starts at PIR. Edwards also has made seven Nationwide starts here. He has won once and has earned five top-5s, and he hasn't finished outside the top 10 in any of them.
"I'm really looking forward to this weekend. Obviously, we won the spring race [in 2007 and] it's always fun to go back somewhere as a former winner," Bowyer said. "We're taking the same car back, and that's a very fast Chevrolet. I'm excited about getting unloaded and seeing if that car still has the same magic it had last April. Hopefully, we can prove ourselves again."
Bowyer said he loves racing at PIR, a good thing considering so much is on the line this weekend.
"It's just the right size. [Aerodynamics] is definitely a big part of it, but not as much as getting into the corner at 200 miles per hour at a racetrack like Texas," Bowyer said. "You have to have your car turning good in the center of the corner but, then again, you have to drive the wheels off of it, too.
"Another thing I like about Phoenix, and racetracks that are like it, are the differences between the corners. Turns 1 and 2 are tight, and Turns 3 and 4 are long and sweeping. You're not going to find a perfect setup and go out there and wax everybody. You have to carry the car in one corner to be good in the other. You have to find a happy medium, so it's up to you. You have a little more control over your destiny at a track like Phoenix."
Edwards also believes he can do more to force the issue this week, leaving him in good shape for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We are on a roll, and this championship drive is still alive. We have won in Phoenix before and plan on doing it again. Phoenix International Raceway is the first track ever where I drove on pavement, and I have a lot of good memories there. This whole team is pumped and motivated, and we have one goal and that's to win."
Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer doesn't see why Edwards can't do just that.
"Carl is a past winner at Phoenix, and I am very confident we will be a force this weekend," Blickensderfer said. "The championship is still up for grabs, and we have to run a clean race to have a chance at a win this weekend. This team has figured out how to win and overcome adversity. We are bringing our Ford Fusion that won at Richmond, so if we stay patient and get on and off of pit road cleanly, we can come away with a great finish."
PIR is a challenge that many drivers love. Turns 1 and 2 have 11 degrees of banking, with just 9 degrees in the remaining turns. Throw in a "dogleg" on the backstretch -- which is nearly 400 feet longer than the front -- and you have a unique day at the office.
"Phoenix has short-track characteristics," veteran Jason Keller said. "It is fast, short and intense. You really have to be on top of your game to race here. The track is pretty flat with very little banking. It's one of the few flatter tracks left on the circuit. There will be a lot of beating and banging with the cars; it'll be like old-time racing out there."
That's just fine with Jason Leffler, who grew up racing at PIR in events such as the Copper World Classic.
"It's a slick old racetrack and unique in that both ends are so different and the surface is so wore out. You slide around a lot, but obviously, given my background, I like that kind of racing," Leffler said. "The [Braun Racing] team always seems to be pretty strong at Phoenix. Of course, we go into every race feeling that we can be a contender, but we definitely go out there with a little more confidence given our previous performances there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Clint Bowyer knows that only one driver leading the Nationwide Series with two races to go has failed to win the title. He also knows his 91-point lead over Carl Edwards was at 196 two races ago, writes Mark Ashenfelter.