- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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In February, it didn't take a genius to predict that any championship battle in the Nationwide Series would come down to Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer. Predicting the winner, however, was hardly a given.
Arguments were easy either way as it was hard to go wrong taking Edwards, who was looking to defend a title he won easily despite stumbling late in the 2007 season. And Bowyer was a trendy pick based on his previous prowess in the series.
Bowyer also turned out to be the correct pick as he edged Edwards by 21 points for the championship.
It's how they both got to the finale at Homestead that was harder to predict.
Few would have guessed Edwards would spend the first half of the season again stuck in neutral, continuing a trend that started after he'd built an insurmountable lead in the first half of '07.
And it's likely that those picking Bowyer thought he'd win it all by piling up a handful of wins along the way given Richard Childress Racing's track record.
So while the two drivers expected to be in the limelight at Homestead-Miami Speedway were indeed dominating the headlines, the way they got there was a bit surprising.
Then again, there were plenty of surprises throughout the season -- which will officially be wrapped up with Saturday night's Nationwide Series Awards Banquet in Orlando, Fla., when Bowyer will be the man of the hour.
After all, the year's top stories included:
Joe Gibbs Racing's total domination; with Kyle Busch posting 10 of JGR's 19 victories.
The shocking fact that JGR would have seven crew members -- including both of its crew chiefs and car chiefs -- suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after JGR's two teams attempted to circumvent chassis dyno testing following the August race at Michigan.
The series had three first-time winners in Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose's win at Montreal saw the field race with rain tires for the first time in competition in one of the top three series.
In the end, though, Bowyer will be remembered as the driver who proved once again that steady, though hardly slow, can win the championship race.
Bowyer's lone win came at Bristol in March, in a rain-shorted event nonetheless. So while Busch was dominant running a partial schedule, inconsistency kept him from giving any thought to making a run at the title.
With Busch out of the picture, that left it up to Bowyer and Edwards to settle the crown.
Edwards did win seven times in the final 19 races after a late-June crew chief switch kicked his season into gear; but the struggles of the season's first half were simply too much to overcome. And that's a testament to Bowyer's consistency.
While both Edwards (19) and Busch (18) had more top-fives than Bowyer's 14, the fact that Bowyer recorded 29 top-10s and was running at the end of all 35 races made the difference. Edwards had just 22 top-10s and failed to finish twice.
There were races where Bowyer feels he let the win get away, but he said the championship is a testament to his team and the engine department that kept him bulletproof all year. And he pointed out that much of the credit belongs to Dan Deeringhoff, the team's largely unheralded crew chief.
"In my opinion he's a lot like I am," Bowyer said. "He never shows up until the money is on the line, and then he's there. I feel like that's what won us this championship.
"If you look at the [Homestead race], hell, I was nervous. I was like, 'We're not that good; how am I going to get up [to the front]?' We work together, we work hard, and Dan makes good decisions, and by the end of the night we're where we need to be, and I think that we complement each other well, and I appreciate all of his hard work.
"This has been a long time coming. We worked well together last year, had an incredible, consistent year last year, and it showed me that that's what it took to win a championship this year, and indeed that's what it was."
The ability of Deeringhoff to keep things heading in the right direction no matter the circumstances was seemingly tested at Phoenix with the season winding down. Contact on pit road damaged the front of Bowyer's car yet the team worked on the car and Bowyer drove back for a fourth-place finish that allowed him to maintain a semi-comfortable 56-point lead heading into Homestead.
"That last week at Phoenix, I think that was probably the turning point for winning the championship is those guys got in there and dug and dug, and that car was killed in a front end, and if we ever had luck on our side, it was that day, we didn't lose a radiator," owner Richard Childress said. "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.
"I think that was a big turning point in winning the championship, being able to come [to Homestead] instead of being 20 points ahead, being like we were."
Edwards can always wonder what would have happened had Drew Blickensderfer taken control of the team earlier; but that doesn't change things. All he can do is look forward to running for the title again next year -- when the No. 2 team that beat him this year is running just a partial schedule with Bowyer and Austin Dillon driving.
Seemingly out of championship contention in June, Edwards was able to simply go for broke without worrying for points. It's an approach he'd like to find a way to continue next year from the season's start.
"I'm kind of thinking about just racing like that all the time now. I can't imagine why you'd race for points," Edwards said. "We seem to have accumulated a lot of points by just being aggressive. [But] there is a fine line. You have to be careful. I have taken a lot of not very smart chances, chances that were risky, but it has been fun. I've enjoyed it."
While Logano largely lived up to the hype that surrounded his debut with Joe Gibbs Racing a week after turning 18, and Ambrose surprised few by winning on a road course, Brad Keselowski's development was one of the more overlooked stories of the season.
Running the full schedule for the first time with JR Motorsports, Keselowski posted two wins, 11 top-fives and 20 top-10s while finishing third in points.
Keselowski finished 338 points behind Bowyer and 317 behind Edwards, but knows now how to go about winning a championship.
"You just can't have bad finishes. I felt like if you look at our stats this year, you know, and our performance, we've been just as competitive, if not more [competitive] than Clint has, but Clint has just done such a great job of executing at the end of the day, and so has his team, not having any failures and all that.
"Quite honestly, my team did a great job, too, and just caught some bad breaks. That's racing. You know, you have to do more than do everything right; you have to have a little bit of luck. But there's probably room to improve all the way around, room for me to improve, room for the team to improve and room for the luck to improve, and we're just the tiniest bit off on each bit. I'm just a tiny bit off, the team is just a tiny bit off, the luck is just a tiny bit off, and if we can put all that together next year, we can go win it."
Keselowski won't have Bowyer to beat; but Bowyer's OK with that -- because he'll always have the first-ever Nationwide Series championship trophy.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.