For the first time since 2005, a Nationwide Series regular was crowned a Nationwide Series champion…and he nearly won the race as well. Racing as aggressively as he has for much of the 2011 season, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made a hard charge past Carl Edwards late, but fell a car length short of catching Brad Keselowski in a spirited dash to the checkered flag. Keselowski scored his fifth win of the 2011 season Saturday, with Stenhouse, Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin rounding out the top 5.
Stenhouse entered Saturday needing only to finish 37th or better to clinch his first NASCAR championship, which came early courtesy of the usual fleet of start-and-parks at the back of the field. Stenhouse ended up leading a Roush Fenway Racing assault on the field which saw the Mustangs occupying three of the top 5 positions for much of the afternoon, until Bayne found trouble with the wall while rim-riding and losing a tire. Still, the three RFR drivers combined to lead 111 of the 200 circuits run. Elliott Sadler finished sixth in a strong conclusion to his 2011 campaign.
With his third-place run, Edwards won the owner’s championship for the No. 60 team, breaking a streak of three consecutive titles for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 squad. Timmy Hill also clinched the Rookie of the Year title after starting all but one event for Rick Ware Racing this season. Sadler finished second in the final standings, 45 markers back, followed by Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola and Reed Sorenson.
It’s hard to find any kind of negative in the story of *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* winning the Nationwide Series championship. A Nationwide regular won the series crown, and won multiple races doing it. Stenhouse was a true example of driver development done right; the owner stuck with the team, the team was funded to keep it on-track even when sponsor dollars weren’t there, and the driver demonstrated remarkable progress over his ugly 2010 campaign. More important was the manner in which Stenhouse earned this championship; there was no stroking it with the No. 6 team. Stenhouse was one of only a handful of Nationwide regulars able to keep up with the Cup interlopers throughout the season, and week after week he took the fight to them,even trading barbs with teammate Carl Edwards during the midseason short-track stretch. A deserving champion and a true talent in the making, take a bow, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. It’s well-deserved.
As for runner-up *Elliott Sadler*, it’s a real shame this points race wasn’t a bit closer coming into Saturday…because the No. 2 team had their strongest run in some time at Homestead. Sadler and team were in the mix for their first win of the year until the closing laps, and definitely laid the groundwork to carry momentum into the off-season…and their integration into Richard Childress Racing…with this showing.
*David Stremme* and the No. 70 car were running ninth in the later stages of the finale racing and were in prime contention to score their first top 10 finish since Richmond way back in the spring…but they threw that out the window and made a play for the win. Under caution inside of 25 laps to go, Stremme and team opted to take two tires and get out in front of the field, hoping to maintain track position long enough to factor into the finish. The strategy move didn’t work out, the top 10 was lost, and Stremme ended up coming home 15th. But bravo to this team, not only for again being among the class of part-time efforts at this level of racing, but in throwing caution to the wind and making a play to win. ML Motorsports came to play Saturday, and they’re to be commended for it.
*Sam Hornish, Jr.* followed up his first career NASCAR win with another top-10 run, his third consecutive top-10 result (which is his career-long).
*Trevor Bayne* was right up front with Carl and Ricky this Saturday night, but unlike the other two, his Mustang wasn’t around to do burnouts when all was said and done. Bayne had the No. 16 mere inches from the wall as he used the high groove, and though he scraped the wall earlier in the event, harder contact with the fence on lap 173 ended up flattening a tire on his Ford and ruining any chances for a season-closing win for the team. Bayne eventually finished 11th, which while it was not as bad as it could have been, he was certainly underwhelming on a night where Roush Fenway Racing…and their new leading development driver…brought their A games and delivered results. Bayne had a remarkable 2011, but even with that Daytona 500 trophy on the mantle, he’s no longer No. 1 on the development ladder in the Ford camp.
*Stanton Barrett’s* first Nationwide Series start since Texas last fall didn’t go the way both he and Rick Ware Racing planned; though the No. 41 ran the distance for the first time since Lucas Oil Raceway Park earlier in the summer, Barrett made heavy contact with the wall on lap 131 that ruined any shot at a top 25 day for RWR’s second car.
*Danica Patrick* saw a top 15 at the track where she enjoyed her strongest 2010 run go up in smoke on lap 188, getting loose in turn 2 and pounding the wall with the right front of her No. 7 car. Patrick ended up finishing 32nd, her worst result since a wreck-shortened race at Bristol back in March.
*Morgan Shepherd* got help from Tony Stewart to get to the track in Homestead after his ugly crash at Phoenix a week ago, but that return to racing lasted all of one lap, with engine failure sending the No. 89 to the garage in last place to close out the 2011 campaign.
Each of the Wallaces in the field had disappointing or disastrous closures to their seasons. *Mike Wallace* finished a quiet 20th in the No. 01 car, the fifth time in their six-race sponsor deal with Steven Singer Jewelers that they finished 20th or worse (the team had finished worse than 20th only once in the five races prior). *Kenny Wallace* ended up getting tapped exiting turn 4 in congestion on lap 188 (replays were inconclusive, though it seemed his No. 09 machine got help in spinning; Wallace said afterward that the crash was a chain reaction from Stremme getting loose and brushed the wall in front of him.) Wallace finished 33rd after making contact with the interior frontstretch wall. Lastly, there was *Steven Wallace*, whose regression in the 2011 season showed its teeth yet again, as both early contact with the wall and a later spin with a damaged race car relegated the No. 66 to a 34th place result, well over 50 laps short of the finish. Wallace’s sponsor search for 2012 backing was not done any favors by his season-ending race.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Timmy Hill* Hill has run better than 20th on numerous occasions this year, but seeing the 18-year-old capture Rookie of the Year honors is a great story. It’s been a while since the journeyman Rick Ware Racing organization has fielded a driver for a full-time campaign, but the team threw everything they had, including fielding three start-and-park cars to test setups with it, to pursue driver development on a limited budget and staff. Hill’s improvement, as well as the improvement of the No. 15 team., was visible both on and off the stats sheet as 2011 progressed, and at only 18, time is on Hill’s side moving forward. One can only hope that this ROTY title gets him some looks.
Start-and-parkers occupied 5 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s field, taking home $68,795 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 5 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 6 of the 43 positions in Saturday’s race, and took home $233,210 in purse money.
*The 2011 Season*
433 of 1,410 starting positions occupied (30.7%)
$9,293,320 dollars won
28 of 34 trophies collected (82.4%)
*The Final Word*
Was anyone else amused by how Marty Reid kept referring to Kevin Conway as Mike Conway? Come on man, you’ve been doing NASCAR long enough now to not confuse the 2010 Cup Rookie of the Year with an open-wheeler right? Conway finished 26th in his ninth start of the season.
After four seasons of writing this column, for me, it’s onward to other roles within the Frontstretch organization in 2012. This feature will always hold a special place for me, as it was the job I was hired to do back in 2008. To all the readers and teams that have contributed to making this feature what it has been over the past seasons, thank you. It was a pleasure to end this feature on a high-note for the Nationwide Series and the regulars that will keep this series going.
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