After a late-race wreck drastically changed the championship picture at Phoenix courtesy of Elliott Sadler’s troubles, the season finale race at Homestead was tame by comparison. Though Sadler started strong and even challenged for the lead during the first run of the race, by event’s end it was business as usual, with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. comfortably ahead of Sadler, who had faded in the final stretches. The result was Stenhouse and the No. 6 team easily scoring their second consecutive Nationwide Series championship, with Sadler holding off teammate Austin Dillon by only one point for second in the standings.
As far as the race was concerned, Kyle Busch’s early dominance was eventually conquered by none other than Regan Smith, whose debut at JR Motorsports ended up a convincing victory for the company’s newest employee and former Cup regular. Smith, who weathered a late-race restart to score his first career Nationwide Series win, held off Busch, Brendan Gaughan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dillon to round out the top 5.
The end results did nothing to change the top 10 in the point standings; Stenhouse, Sadler, Dillon, Hornish, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Mike Bliss, Brian Scott, and Danica Patrick.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clinched a hard earned championship.
Austin Dillon clinched a well-deserved rookie of the year crown.
Regan Smith’s hunger after his premature release from Furniture Row Racing made a resounding statement on the final Saturday of the 2012 Nationwide Series season, as the No. 5 car showed muscle that JR Motorsports has seemingly been lacking all year en route to a dominating first win. Only one race in, and Smith already surpassed both of his full-time teammates in Cole Whitt and Danica Patrick while delivering the organization their first trophy since Jamie McMurray won at Atlanta back in 2010. 2013 will be a title contending year for this team that has taken a step back since the departure of Brad Keselowski.
Brendan Gaughan’s well-known affinity for rim-riding on the high side of race tracks was on display this Saturday, and it translated into a top-5 result as green flag runs wore down tires over the course of 300 miles. In finishing third, Gaughan scored his best finish of 2012 and his best since a third at Road America in 2010.
Ryan Blaney wrapped up his coming-out season with an eighth-place result, meaning the development driver went eight for eight in delivering top 15 results for Penske Racing… Brian Scott finished seventh in his final race with Joe Gibbs Racing, though there’s a question to be asked as to whether his hard racing with Stenhouse in the closing laps showed progress or continued erratic tendencies on track… Cole Whitt closed his season with a top-10 finish.
Johanna Long’s entire fall stretch of 2012 was a huge disappointment full of wrecks and mechanical failures–and not even a return back to her home state could stem it. Twenty laps short of the finish and with Long already three laps down outside the top 20, contact with Joey Logano on the exit of turn 2 sent the No. 70 hard into the inside retaining wall, scattering debris all over the apron and bringing Long’s season to a close. She’ll be back for 2013… hoping not to pick up where this team left off.
Erik Darnell has quietly posted some solid runs for The Motorsports Group in their only car that ran the distance on a regular basis. That wasn’t to be this weekend, with an engine failure parking the No. 40 car 53 laps short of the finish. The resulting 35th-place finish allowed Eric McClure to jump Darnell for 16th in the final standings.
John Blankenship ended up making more waves after a three-spin weekend at Phoenix with a DNF owing to an accident, completing only 92 laps. Between his pronounced struggles and Hal Martin’s underwhelming performance in his limited starts (he finished five laps down in 30th on Saturday) and Tri-Star Motorsports’ late development efforts revealed a lot of work to do.
Robert Richardson picked up where Blankenship and Noel Dowler left off at Phoenix with two unassisted spins at Homestead that both used up the right side of his car and went off as instant replays (he lost control on the exit of turn 4 both times). Richardson’s 33rd place finish in the season finale left the status of his career in just as much doubt as R3 Motorsports’ Cup car.
Ryan Truex did himself few favors in his final start of 2012 for Joe Gibbs Racing, a stable that is fast filling up courtesy of signing Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler rumored to be joining as well. Truex, driving for the same No. 20 team that Vickers nearly won with in his debut a week ago, ended up bringing out the first yellow of the race on lap 66 with a spin exiting turn 4. The spin was one thing, but Truex’s mis-guided attempt to correct the car instead of locking it down and spinning out turned what would have been a harmless incident into a race-ending wreck. The Truex name and his connection to Toyota help, but races with JGR are going to be harder to come by courtesy of finishes such as these.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Scott Lagasse, Jr. The former Chip Ganassi Racing, Fitz/Bradshaw Racing and Baker/Curb Racing driver has opted to take the hard route of independent ownership to make his return to Nationwide racing, but even over the course of three races his No. 8 team has made strides. In only three starts, the team went from finishing 13 laps off the pace at Kentucky to qualifying top 15, finishing in the top 20, and doing so only one lap off the pace at Homestead. For the sake of independents left on tour, here’s hoping this team keeps that improvement curve moving the right direction.
Start-and-parkers occupied 4 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $54,785 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored one of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 5 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, and took home $136,008 in purse money.
382 of 1,419 starting positions occupied (26.9%)
$7,884,923 dollars won
17 of 33 trophies collected (51.5%)
The Final Word
• Between Kyle Busch and now Logano’s latest incident (i.e. running over Johanna Long), JGR’s guys seem about as incompetent as they come at handling lapped traffic.
• There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: compared with Friday night’s Truck finale, this one was a snoozer. Having said that, one has to applaud Stenhouse for his win. Anyone willing to defy both his spotter and crew chief and continue to race for position in the closing laps of a race where they mathematically have all but locked the championship up has got some real stones and competitiveness flowing through them. Can’t wait to see this guy in Cup.
• Austin Dillon, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne equals one stacked deck for 2013’s title chase at the Nationwide level. With that much competition, Elliott Sadler’s window for a championship may well have closed for good this Saturday whether or not he ends up at Joe Gibbs Racing next year.