18 November 2012
Nationwide: Stenhouse wins back-to-back titles
Regan Smith won the Ford EcoBoost 300 NASCAR Nationwide season finale on Saturday in his first series outing in five years, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clinched the 2012 title.
It was a tense finish to the 2012 season for the three drivers still in the running for the Nationwide Series championship, and the tension and sheer exhaustion of the effort certainly told on the crew and driver of the #6 Ford - or maybe they were just a little overwhelmed by their achievement, as they successfully completed their bid for a rare second consecutive Nationwide title.
Whatever the cause, it led to a strangely subdued atmosphere in victory lane after the deed was accomplished - but there were plenty of high spirits and celebrations elsewhere on pit road, as JR Motorsports celebrated a return to winning ways for both themselves and their new regular series driver Regan Smith.
Polesitter Kyle Busch had looked to be in control of the race early on as he led the field to the green flag shortly before 5pm under the setting sun at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He maintained the lead into turn 1 with Elliott Sadler holding on to second place ahead of fellow title contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon. Sadler wasn't content riding shotgun, but his bid for the lead on lap 8 ended up with a crossover counterattack by Busch that put the #51 back in front before Sadler could even collect a point for leading at the line. After that close encounter, Busch decided it was time to build up a big comfort margin by moving smartly away from his title-fixated pursuers.
With fully a third of field consisting of first time competitors in a Nationwide Series race at Homestead, by lap 25 only 28 cars were still on the lead lap thanks to Busch's sustained charge at the front and the backmarker traffic was already becoming a problem. Sadler was now a full five seconds in arrears, and for him the even worse news was that reality that Stenhouse was clamped to the rear bumper of the #2 making it impossible for Sadler to do anything about overhauling the Roush Fenway Racing driver's 20pt lead in the standings.
Behind them, Austin Dillon had been ousted from fourth place by Regan Smith, who was competing in his first outing in the JR Motorsports #5 car that will be his regular ride in Nationwide in 2013 after five years away from the series. Behind Dillon in sixth place was Sam Hornish Jr., himself newly confirmed as returning full-time to the Penske Racing team in the #22 next season.
After 48 laps and half an hour of green flag running, Danica Patrick was the first of the cars on the lead lap to pit from 16th place, after which there was a flood of other takers for fresh tyres and fuel including the race leader on lap 50, which precipitated the first lead change of the day as Joey Logano briefly took over at the front for a solitary turn at the front.
Busch was back at the front once the pit stop sequence was complete, ahead of Smith, Sadler, Stenhouse, Hornish and Brian Scott, with Austin Dillon having dropped to seventh place as the Richard Childress Racing team chased the cooling conditions with set-up changes to make the #3 more to his liking as daylight gave way to floodlight.
The race had completed the first third of the 200-lap race distance with no incidents or cautions, and Busch still in the lead by nine seconds, when the first caution of the day came out on lap 66. It was for Ryan Truex, who had lost control of the #20 after skimming off the wall and overcorrecting in his efforts to save it.
The caution gave the drivers a chance for a more leisurely return to pit road under yellow. Sadler opted to stay out, while Busch and Smith both opted to take a full set of new tyres, and as a result they lost positions to those who just came in for fuel. At the restart, Sadler and Stenhouse were on front of Busch and Dillon, with Ryan Blaney ahead of Smith, Logano and Danica Patrick who was up to eighth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
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