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.
"I didn't want to see that caution when we were leading but those always come out it seems like," Stenhouse said. "That last restart I was giving it all I had. If I could have got a little better restart and not lost as much ground to Carl and Brad I think we could have had it."
Stenhouse did manage to quickly blast past all but the top two, while Keselowski took the lead from Edwards. With two laps to go to the end, Stenhouse finally also passed Edwards for second place and set off in pursuit of Keselowski, but despite a furious charge he ran out of time before the chequered flag came out: Stenhouse might have the championship, but he would have to concede the day's race win to the 2010 Nationwide champion, Brad/ Keselowski.
Keselowski himself was thrilled to be bowing out of his title year in the series with a victory, given that changes to NASCAR rules meant that he was no longer eligible to defend his title while also competing in the Sprint Cup series. "Not being able to win the championship, it's good to be able to finish on a high note, winning the pole and the race at Homestead," said Keselowski, who has taken seven wins in 2011 including three in the last seven outings. "You couldn't ask for a better way to end the season."
The Ford 300 also saw the Nationwide Series oval début for Nelson Piquet Jr., who is looking forward to a limited outing in seven Nationwide events in 2012 now that his move to Turner Motorsports is confirmed. Piquet finished two laps off the leader in 24th place at Homestead, while another former open-wheel racer, Sam Hornish Jr., finished in a strong seventh place. Danica Patrick had a late accident on lap 188 that put her out of the running.
Stenhouse and Edwards' third Roush Fenway Racing team mate Trevor Bayne's race was compromised when he scraped the wall and cut his right rear tyre on lap 174, but he recovered to finish on the lead lap in 11th place. Other yellows during the afternoon included a caution on lap 3 for Fain Skinner hitting the the wall after contact with Eric McClure, and a second for Steve Walace scraping the wall out of turn 4 on lap 13. A planned competition yellow came out on lap 35, after which the track remained green until Andrew Ranger's spin on lap 94 in the middle of that green-flag pit stop sequence.
Stanton Barrett slapped the wall on lap 131 and Steve Wallace half-spun with a right-rear tyre issue on lap 146. Bayne's incident provoked the seventh caution on lap 174; then Reed Sorenson spun at the restart to bring out another yellow on lap 182, and Kenny Wallace did likewise shortly after the next restart on lap 188 to bring out the ninth and final caution of the day that set up the final seven-lap shootout for the race win by Keselowski ahead of Stenhouse.
Full race results and times