Over the last two years Phoenix International Raceway and its tight-knit racing has done its part in determining the NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. If that’s to be the case again this season, Sam Hornish Jr., who sits six points back of leader Austin Dillon, hopes to buck the recent trend of the second-place driver heading into the penultimate race both seasons.
Last season, eventual champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler arrived in Phoenix tied in points. Everything seemed to be going well for both frontrunners until Turn 3 on the final lap when Sadler got caught up in an accident with Brendan Gaughan and Cole Whitt. Stenhouse finished third, left Phoenix with a 20-point advantage and cruised to his second consecutive title.
In 2011, the same two drivers, Stenhouse and Sadler, entered Phoenix in a close battle for the championship. Stenhouse held a lead of 17 markers, but was able to widen that gap to 41 after Sadler, who finished 27th, was involved in a five-car accident in Turn 3 just 23 laps shy of the end of the race. Stenhouse placed sixth while Hornish captured his first series victory that day.
As the current second-place driver, Hornish hopes to avoid the same fate Sadler experienced the two previous seasons. He, however, has had more success at the one-mile track than Dillon, which might come into play during Saturday’s ServiceMaster 200. In six starts at Phoenix, Hornish has three top 10s in the series. In eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, he’s collected only one top-10 finish – a ninth in the spring 2009 race. In addition, his first win in the IndyCar Series came at PIR in the opening race of the 2001 season. He collected another IndyCar win there four years later.
Although Dillon has never captured a checkered flag at Phoenix, he’s still run well there posting three top-10 finishes in four starts. His last three trips have yielded finishes of fourth, sixth and sixth. In two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts, he’s placed seventh and fifth.