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.
The benefit of fresh rubber was clear to see at the shortlived restart, Busch ducking underneath both Sadler and Stenhouse to effortlessly retake the lead. Another caution was soon out for a spin out of turn 4 by Robert Richardson Jr. on lap 73, which ended with the nose of the #23 tapping into the inside retaining wall. The car also dropped a lot of debris as it limped away down the frontstretch, causing a delay before the race could resume on lap 81.
Busch and Sadler were safely away at the front, but Stenhouse was looking sluggish and got caught up among a pack of chasing cars that included Regan Smith, Justin Allgaier, Sam Hornish and Brendan Gaughan. Stenhouse allowed them all to pass, dropping him back to seventh place but secure in the knowledge that he still had plenty of points in hand over Sadler in the title battle; in any case, Sadler's decision to stay out on old tyres was having its own effect, with Sadler himself dropping places to Smith and Hornish on the way down to fourth place.
Smith and Hornish themselves were on a definite charge, and with Busch looking less dominant in the encroaching night conditions they surged past the #54 for the lead on lap 92, just before Richardson performed a repeat spin to bring out the third caution of the evening. That allowed everyone to come in for a new round to pit stops under caution just before the midway point of the race: Stenhouse and Sadler needed their deferred four tyre stop this time around and duly fell back down the running order, Stenhouse to 13th while Sadler fell to 19th at the back of the lead lap after he was recalled to pit road for a missing lugnut.
Danica Patrick stayed out to lead at the restart but her old tyres were a liability and she quickly fell backwards at the restart. The top spots were resumed by Hornish, Smith and Busch, but all three quickly fell victim to Austin Dillon who had the newest set of tyres of the bunch which together with a slew of set-up changes helped propel him into the lead for the first time of the race on lap 105.
"Good job boys, we got a race car here!", Dillon jubilantly radioed to his pit crew as he flew into a big lead over the field.
Stenhouse and Sadler also had the same fresh tyre bonus, and 12 laps into the green flag stint Stenhouse was back up into third and Sadler was already running up in eighth, immediately behind Kyle Busch whose handling continued to drop off the cooler the after-dark conditions became.
Those trends continued over the next 45 laps of uninterrupted running until Regan Smith became the first time of the leaders to come in to pit under green on lap 146, after which there was a steady stream of visitors to pit road over the next half dozen laps including Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon. Stenhouse among the last of the leaders to pit with 50 to go to the chequered flag, despite having lost positions in the most recent laps after overusing his tyres early in the stint in order to recover positions lost during the previous stop.
The penultimate round of pit stops of the night over with, Dillon was back in a three second lead over Smith, Sadler, Hornish and Brendan Gaughan, with Stenhouse in sixth ahead of Ryan Blaney and Brad Sweet. Stenhouse was not having a fun time of it, however: his car was visibly getting dangerously out of control, and all sorts of strange noises and quirks were starting to rattle his nerves the closer the end of the race and a second consecutive Nationwide Series title got. Providing he managed to bring the car home in one piece at the end of the evening, that is.
"Weï¿½ve had loose race cars before [but] I think we went a little too far [with adjustments," he admitted. "It got a little too tight to have a run at [winning the race]."
A debris caution after 74 green flag laps allowed everyone to come in for some by-now seriously needed adjustments: everyone took tyres, and Dillon won the race off pit road ahead of Smith, Sadler, Gaughan, Stenhouse and Blaney. Smith and Sadler pinched Dillon out of the lead at the restart on lap 178, but Sadler immediately found that the latest changes to the #2 had adversely affected his handling and he was screaming over the team radio that the car was "absolutely junk, absolutely" as he quickly fell back again to fourth place, re-passed by Dillon and also by a now-rejuvenated Kyle Busch.
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."
Grudgingly, Stenhouse finally complied and backed off. With Sadler still running three places behind him at the chequered flag, it was enough to ensure that Stenhouse had retained his Nationwide Series championship ahead of his full time switch to Cup racing with Roush Fenway in 2013.
"A lot of people put a lot of effort into this and I'm just the lucky guy who gets to drive it," said Stenhouse as the team celebrated around him.
"It's really neat to be able to go back-to-back, when only now six of us have done it," said Stenhouse, the first to complete back-to-back wins since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-5. "That's pretty special. It really makes me see how hard that #48 team works on the Cup side with five in a row.
"It was a great two years, and we've had a lot of fun. We look forward to our opportunity next year," he added.
There was no disguising the disappointment in the Sadler camp, after a second straight year of finishing as runner-up. "It's way more disappointing this year because we had control of the points the whole entire season," admitted Sadler, whose race was undone by the three-car accident last week near the end of the Phoenix race.
"We raced as hard as we could every weekend, but we came up short. Didn't take but a few races to put us behind," he said. "Second is not what we wanted, but we ran competitive all year long. I apologise again for coming up short, but we did the best we could."
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