Stenhouse Jr. takes second title
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. left little doubt that he's ready for a promotion.
Stenhouse became the sixth driver to win consecutive championships in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. He finished sixth Saturday in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, edging Elliott Sadler for the title.
''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, who is replacing Matt Kenseth in the Sprint Cup Series next season at Roush Fenway Racing.
Stenhouse finished his final Nationwide season with six wins.
About the only drama in the finale was whether he would play it safe. He did, but not without a few close calls. His spotter even had to remind him several times over the final 10 laps to avoid potential pitfalls.
Stenhouse eventually obliged, but only after he held the push-to-talk button down on his steering wheel to drown out all the chatter in his helmet.
''I don't ride around,'' Stenhouse said. ''That's not how we got in this position.''
Regan Smith won the 300-mile race, his first victory in 103 Nationwide starts. He was making his first start since 2007, and he's going to race for the championship next season for JR Motorsports. This was his debut race with that team, which is co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and had not won a race since 2010.
''These guys worked hard all year long, and we're going to do the same next year and contend for a championship,'' Smith said. ''That's our plan. Hopefully, tonight was part of a statement right there.''
Kyle Busch was second, followed by Brendan Gaughan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon. Danica Patrick was 19th in her final Nationwide race before moving to the Sprint Cup Series full time. She finished 10th in points, becoming the highest-finishing female driver in the history of NASCAR's three national series. The previous record was held by Sara Christian, who finished 13th in 1949 in the Cup series.
Busch dominated the race early, but couldn't get past Smith in the closing laps.
A year after winning 18 races across NASCAR's three national series, Busch went winless in Nationwide and Trucks in 2012. He was 0 for 22 in Nationwide, finishing winless for the first time since his 2003 debut year.
In Sprint Cup, Busch has just one victory headed into Sunday's season finale.
''I think it's been well documented that this has been the absolute worst year of my career, bar none, whether it was racing ASA cars or late models or Legends cars or even being here in the big three,'' Busch said. ''It's a huge disappointment. ... 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.''
Smith did some smoky burnouts, then headed to Victory Lane. Joey Logano also celebrated after clinching the series owners title for Joe Gibbs Racing. It was the fourth owners title for the former Washington Redskins football coach, who matched the previous series record held by Richard Childress.
Stenhouse and his crew, though, enjoyed a more significant moment.
Stenhouse became the first since Martin Truex Jr. in 2005 to win back-to-back titles in the developmental series. Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-98) also accomplished the feat.
Stenhouse started the finale fourth and had a 20-point lead over Elliott. He needed to finish 16th or better to clinch another trophy.
The lead would have been considerably tighter had Sadler not wrecked last week at Phoenix.
But Sadler triggered a three-car accident that brought the race to a halt and essentially ruined his championship hopes. It was reminiscent of last year, when Sadler also finished second to Stenhouse after some late-season setbacks.
''It's way more disappointing this year because we had control of the points the whole entire season,'' Sadler said. ''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. ... Second is not what we wanted, but we ran competitive all year long.''