AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Sam Hornish Jr. raced to his first NASCAR victory and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took a big step toward the Nationwide Series season title when Elliott Sadler was taken out late at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday.
Hornish, a former IndyCar star, passed Stenhouse on a restart midway through the 200-mile race and stayed up front on several restarts to claim his first win in 141 career starts between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
Stenhouse finished fifth after Sadler, the only driver with a chance to catch him, was knocked out with 25 laps left on a bump from behind by Jason Leffler. Sadler's crash gives Stenhouse a nearly insurmountable 41-point lead heading into the season finale at Homestead next weekend.
Brad Keselowski was second and Carl Edwards third.
Hornish was one of the most accomplished American open-wheel drivers in history, winning three IndyCar Series championships and the 2006 Indianapolis 500. He switched to NASCAR full time in 2008, but has had a checkered career in stock cars, his best year coming in 2009, when he had a pair of top-5 finishes.
Hornish struggled in 2010 and was relegated to a part-time schedule on the Nationwide Series this season, earning four top-10s, including a season-best fifth at Chicago.
He was plenty familiar with Phoenix, winning two IndyCar races — including his first a decade ago — at the mile oval before announcing at the track his intention to leave open-wheel racing. Even after PIR was repaved and reconfigured, Hornish was good again in the desert, starting fifth and staying near the front most of the way.
He made a rare pass on the outside on the new surface to overtake Stenhouse on a restart and was well ahead of Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate, as he took his first Nationwide checkers in 32 career starts.
Sadler was running close to Leffler heading into turn 1 and dropped down almost to the apron on the dogleg, before shooting back up the track in front of Leffler, who was racing next to Almirola.
Leffler misjudged Sadler's speed and bumped him from behind, sending his car careening into the wall. Sadler bounced off the wall and took out both Leffler and Almirola, leaving a trail of debris across the track that brought out the red flag.
Sadler got out of the car and raised his arms at Leffler as he yelled something, then gave a sarcastic clap as he continued talking while walking away.
The first repaving in 20 years at PIR left the track slick and with one good racing line, on the inside. The drivers were wary of racing the undeveloped outside line, where it was extra slippery and anyone out there would have trouble controlling their car to keep up with those on the inside.
Their concerns became reality before the first lap was done, when Reed Sorenson got into the back of Brian Scott in turn 3 and triggered an eight-car wreck.
Danica Patrick was collected in the crash and slammed the back of her car into the wall. She was able to return to the track, but six other cars were knocked out.
The longer the race went, though, the more the outside line seemed to come in.
Hornish made the final pass for the lead from the outside, overtaking Stenhouse when he appeared to spin his wheels on the green flag.
Hornish spun his wheels on the restart with 19 laps left after Sadler's wreck, but recovered to stay in front of Keselowski.