There was no stopping Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. once he hit the front of the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, and not even all the experience of Mark Martin could do anything to stop the 24-year-old reigning series champion from clinching his first win of 2012.
"To win on a mile-and-a-half is big for me," said Stenhouse in victory lane. "I think we've got a really good package going right now and to get that win on a mile-and-a-half feels good," he continued, adding: "The guys on pit road did an awesome job to get us out first and that really helped to win us that race."
Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne had led the field to the green flag, but from the start many drivers including Sadler were grappling with loose race cars - and both Mark Martin and Kyle Busch were among those seen saving some dramatic sideways drifts in the opening laps. In the end, Busch finally came to grief in a separate incident on lap 24 when he lost the rear end of his car while battling for position with Sam Hornish Jr., and he couldn't save the spin before the rear of the #54 impacted on the inside SAFER barrier. The repairs put him 70 laps off the lead by the time he was able to rejoin.
The first caution of the race had earlier been triggered by rookie Kyle Fowler spinning in turn 4 on lap 11 and by Benny Gordon simultaneously spinning onto pit road itself further down the field. Other cautions included Joey Gase blowing a tyre and sliding along the wall on lap 42, and Jennifer Jo Cobb bringing out a caution after she spun on lap 69 after a little help from Mike Bliss.
The biggest wreck of the race came just shy of the midway point on lap 95, when Brian Scott's car got unsettled by Trevor Bayne passing on the outside line. Scott tried to stop the car from spinning, over-corrected and had the #11 suddenly snap right and into a vicious head-on impact on the outside wall at turn 4. The impact was so violent that the car was briefly lifted clear off the track, and debris was scattered so widely that the rest of the field were taken through pit lane while the clean-up operation went on. Scott himself climbed out of his wrecked car without any problems, thanks again to the SAFER technology.
Scott had been one of the cars to have led during the first half of the race. Polesitter Elliott Sadler led for the first 30 laps until a restart allowed Kasey Kahne to take the top spot; Scott beat Kahne at the next restart to lead for four laps but Kahne quickly reasserted his control of proceedings. Kahne's lead lasted through the next caution until the restart on lap 74, at which point Brad Keselowski had the better start and took over.
Problems getting the fuel into the tank meant a slow stop for Keselowski at the midway point of the race, and even to the car still failed to get a full tank of gas. That meant the #22 ended up running dry on lap 131 and had to crawl back to the pits; to add insult to injury, the car took an eternity to get restarted, and then had to come back in to serve a penalty for speeding in pit lane because the tachometer had been without power. All of that high drama put Keselowski four laps off the lead with no hope of recovering the lost ground.
In the meantime, wily Mark Martin and his crew had previously gone for a and jumped to the lead, which he kept until the next round of pit stops under a caution brought out by TJ Bell stalling on track with no oil pressure on lap 144. Everyone came in for what was the final full round of pit stops, and Martin lined up alongside current Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr for the restart.
Stenhouse went into the lead but it was a brief green flag stint, with Jeremy Clements getting help off turn 4 on lap 154 from Tayler Malsam and being sent on a wild ride across the infield grass. Despite getting briefly airborne over the undulations in the process and bringing out the seventh and final yellow of the afternoon as a precaution, it ultimately proved a harmless diversion for the #51.
Stenhouse once again proved mighty at the restart and quickly started to pull away from Mark Martin, ultimately stretching out a 5s lead as the race went to the finish in a 39-lap green flag period. There was simply nothing left in the car for Martin to respond with, as the veteran racer admitted once the chequered flag came out and confirmed Stenhouse's win.
"That was one serious beat-down he put on me that last run," declared Mark Martin, which was probably the best accolade that anyone could pay the young series champion. "I mean just a beat-down. I kept up with him for a while and about wrecked five times, and that's it."
"It was really cool," said Stenhouse of his impressive run to the flag. "It definitely was good out front. I think that's gonna be the case at a short track or anywhere. We stretched the lead out there to four or five seconds and then I just kind of rode around and saved the tires in case we had a late restart.
"We tightened the car up when we needed to tighten it up and we freed it up when we needed to be a little bit looser," he added. "Mike [Kelley, crew chief] did the adjustments on how far to go and I think we all worked as a team this weekend and worked really hard."
Further back, Elliott Sadler overcame mid-race handling issues to reclaim third place from Trevor Bayne in the final stint, with Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan in fifth followed by rookies Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon. Justin Allgaier, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top ten.
“It's good when you can say a top five is disappointing," said Trevor Bayne, who faces an uncertain future in the Nationwide Series as he has no sponsorship lined up for any further races in 2012. "We want to be in Victory Lane every week and there for a while I thought we had a shot at it."
"It was a solid day ... Not a ground breaking day," said Danica Patrick, after a decent afternoon spent avoiding any incidents at Vegas which made this a fairly confidence-boosting weekend after a rather too-eventful start to the season up till now. "It would have been nice if we'd got in the top ten, that was my goal," she added after finishing in 12th place, the position she had started in.
Full race results, qualifying times
and championship standings are available.