HOMESTEAD, Fla. — 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 finished the season with six wins.
About the only drama in the race was whether Stenhouse would play it safe. He did, but not without a few close calls. His Roush Fenway Racing team even had to remind him several times over the final 10 laps to avoid potential pitfalls.
Stenhouse eventually obliged.
“We’re a group of racers and that’s what racers do — they race hard,” Stenhouse said.
Regan Smith won the 300-mile race, giving team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. a victory.
“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.
After recording eight Nationwide victories last season, Busch went winless in the second-tier series in 2012. He had 18 wins across NASCAR’s top three series in 2011, but has just one this year.
Busch dominated the race early, but couldn’t get past Smith in the closing laps.
Smith did some smoky burnouts, then headed to Victory Lane. But Stenhouse had dibs on the bigger celebration.
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.
For Stenhouse, it was the perfect ending to his Nationwide career. Stenhouse is moving to Sprint Cup next season, replacing Matt Kenseth for team owner Jack Roush.
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.”