Out of nowhere, just 17 points separate NASCAR Nationwide top 5

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After his win at Michigan International Speedway three races ago, Regan Smith (No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet) increased his lead over Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 12 Penske Racing Ford) in the NASCAR Nationwide Series points standings from 23 to 58 markers.

But consecutive finishes of 30th or worse at Road America and Kentucky before an eighth place this Friday at Daytona has seen Smith’s lead shrink to just six points to Hornish. Hornish has finished fifth, ninth and seventh and clawed back 52 points.

The actual championship battle in Nationwide has been largely overshadowed by the frequency of Sprint Cup regulars scoring Nationwide race wins. In 16 races, only Smith (twice), Hornish (once) and Trevor Bayne (once) have taken home wins ahead of the Cup regulars.

So with the season nearly at its halfway point, with 17 races remaining, just 17 points separates the top five in the series standings.

Smith leads Hornish by six, Elliott Sadler by 14, Justin Allgaier by 15 and Austin Dillon by 17 points.Those three have yet to win a race this season. Their quest to get on the scoreboard continues at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon this Saturday.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”