Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was crowned the 2011 Nationwide Series champion after coming second in the Ford 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, more than enough to see off any lingering threat to his new title from Elliott Sadler.
Yet despite pushing for all he was worth in the closing minutes, Stenhouse wasn't able go one better and pass outgoing champion Brad Keselowski for Saturday afternoon's race win, and had to settle for the runners-up spot instead.
"What an effort, champion," Stenhouse's spotter Mike Calinoff radioed in as the #6's last attempt to get around Keselowski was thwarted.
"That was all I had," admitted Stenhouse of that last lap push. "I was really hoping for one more lap there, but Brad did a good job. I got a little loose there coming off 4, or I thought we could have got him.
"But, man, it was fun racing those guys," he continued. "We were sideways, turning right, trying to keep it off the fence, getting into the fence every now and then, and to race up there with Carl, Brad, Denny, Clint Bowyer, Elliott Sadler - they're some of the best in the business and to be up there racing with them is fun.”
Stenhouse was still dazed with the reality of his championship achievement: "This is a dream come true ... It is unbelievable," he said. "There are a lot of people that have worked really hard for this. My family has sacrificed a lot. Jack Roush and all these guys on our team, they were with us when we were struggling and they never gave up last year."
Stenhouse had actually clinched the title early during the afternoon's proceedings, when enough cars had retired by lap 28 to make it impossible for Elliott Sadler to close up the points difference between them and steal the title at the last moment. Even if Stenhouse crashed out, he was now assured 37th place which put him out of Sadler's reach. That meant he was released to run as hard as he liked for the outright race win as well, having previously been required to put safety first and prioritise making no accidents.
Sadler himself had started the race alongside polesitter Keseelowski and immediately taken the lead at the green flag for the first half dozen laps before Keselowski found his groove and dived underneath him for the lead that he would then hold for all but one of the next 50 laps. After that, Carl Edwards made a determined effort to go head-to-head with him and finally came off best; with only temporary interruptions for pit stops and cautions, Edwards continued to lead through to lap 148 and set the most laps led (87 out of the 200-lap race distance, compared with 66 for Keselowski and 22 laps in front for Stenhouse.)
Staying out under a caution then put Clint Bowyer in the lead, but at the restart Stenhouse made his move and went to the front hoping to build up a margin over Keselowski and Edwards, who were still too close for comfort behind him. A final flurry of cautions meant that Stenhouse was dropped back out of the top five, which consisted of Edwards, Keselowski, Sadler, Bowyer and Denny Hamlin as the green flag came out with seven to go.