18 November 2012
Nationwide: Stenhouse wins back-to-back titles
Sadler was battling side-by-side with Stenhouse to retain fourth place when the yellows came out again for a fifth caution on lap 180 after Joey Logano tipped Johanna Long into a spin that sent her into a hard nose-first impact against the inside wall on the backstretch. There was no time for a the luxury of a further pit stop at this point of proceedings: the die was cast and everyone grimly prepared for the final run to the finish line.
The restart was a case of deja vu all over again: Smith leapt away at the front, Dillon spun his wheels and fell back, Sadler looked initially strong but then soon fell off the pace as he wrestled with his "absolutely junk" car, and that allowed Kyle Busch to take second spot ahead of Gaughan and Hornish. With no further interruptions to the race before the chequered flag, that was how the race finished - a famous return to Nationwide service for Smith, who had never won a Nationwide race in his previous 102 appearances in the championship up to July 2007.
"It's definitely a good start," said Smith, who admitted that the series had changed a lot in his absence. "These guys worked hard all year long, and we're going to do the same next year and contend for a championship.
"That's our plan. Hopefully, tonight was part of a statement right there," he added. "It kind of sucks that we have to wait two months. Iï¿½d like to get started now!"
He'd been happy with the #5 right from the green flag, he revealed. "It didn't hurt that I had a fast race car from the start, so I didn't have to worry about a lot of things. We made a lot of changes and tried a lot of stuff, but, at the same time, that balance was always there pretty close."
Smith was joined in the celebrations by JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., after the team's first Nationwide win since Jamie McMurray made it to victory lane in Atlanta in September 2010. Another of the team's driver line-up, Danica Patrick, also achieved a little slice of history by finishing in tenth place in the Nationwide standings, the best championship showing for a female driver in any of NASCAR's three national series.
But it was another disappointing near-miss in a season full of frustration for Busch, who ended 2012 without a Nationwide win to his name for his new Kyle Busch Motorsports team. It's the first time in eight consecutive seasons that Busch has gone winless, although in mitigation he had cut back on the number of races he ran in 2012 after opting to share the #54 car with his brother Kurt.
Even so, "It's a huge disappointment," admitted Kyle. "I think it's been well documented that this has been the absolute worst year of my career bar none ... I can't seem to put it all together when it matters, and you have to in this sport, otherwise you'll be kind of shown the door."
But what of of the title battle? Following the restart, Ricky Stenhouse stumbled into a succession of fraught battles with a gaggle of slow traffic that brought him within inches of disaster. His crew chief was on the radio, imploring him not to fight battles that he did not need to that could mean risking crashing out and handing the title to Sadler or Dillon.
"I don't ride around," Stenhouse said, who at one point even held down his radio transmit button in order to drown out the instructions from pit lane. "That's not how we got in this position."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
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