Homestead, FL – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. claimed his second consecutive Nationwide Series championship with a sixth-place finish in Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stenhouse beat Elliott Sadler by 23 points and rookie Austin Dillon by 24 markers to become the sixth different driver to win back-to-back titles in NASCAR's second-tier series. Dillon finished the race one spot ahead of Stenhouse in fifth, while Sadler placed ninth.
Martin Truex Jr. was the last driver to win consecutive Nationwide titles, doing so from 2004-05. The other drivers who won successive championships in the series include: Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99).
"It is really neat to be able to go back-to-back when only now six of us have done it," Stenhouse said. "That is pretty special. It really makes me see how hard that 48 team (Jimmie Johnson) works on the Cup side with five (championships) in a row. It was a great two years, and we have had a lot of fun."
Stenhouse ran somewhat conservatively for the most of the 300-mile race, but during the final 20 laps, the Roush Fenway Racing driver had a couple of close calls while battling Sadler for a top-10 position. Crew chief Mike Kelley urged Stenhouse over the team radio to play it safe.
"We were loose," Stenhouse said. "We've had loose race cars before and made an adjustment there. I was questioning how far we should go, but I think we went a little too far to have a run at it there at the end. I got a little too tight."
Stenhouse concluded his last year with the No. 6 Roush Fenway team in Nationwide with six wins, 19 top-five finishes and 26 top-10s. He is replacing Matt Kenseth in Roush's No. 17 car in the Sprint Cup Series next season. Kenseth is moving over to Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 20 car.
While Stenhouse celebrated his second title, Regan Smith picked up his first career Nationwide win. Making his debut in the No. 5 car for JR Motorsports, Smith grabbed the lead after a restart with 22 laps remaining and then beat his fellow Sprint Cup competitor, Kyle Busch, to the finish line by 1.4 seconds. His first Nationwide win came in his 103 start.
Smith had not competed in a Nationwide race since July 2007 at Daytona. He is running a full schedule in the series next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team.
"That was a strong race car there," Smith said. "I got to thank all of the guys at JR Motorsports. They built a heck of a race car. I'm excited about driving them next year. These guys have worked hard all year long, and we're going to do the same next year. We going to contend for a championship. That's our plan. Hopefully, tonight was part of that statement."
Busch, who was in his first year as driver and owner of the No. 54 Toyota, ended his streak of eight consecutive seasons with at least one Nationwide race win. He started on the pole and dominated the first half of the race by leading 89 laps. Busch also finished second in Friday's Camping World Truck Series race at Homestead, crossing the finish line only 0.014 seconds behind winner Cale Gale.
"I've got to start living different, I guess. I don't know what it is," Busch said. "I only ran three truck races and should have won last night. I had a shot to win Atlanta, had a shot to win Texas, just nothing ever materialized, and why it's not materializing I can't tell you. But I don't know if you can keep a job in this sport by finishing second and third every single week or not, but hopefully I can because I seem not to be able to get to victory lane."
Brendan Gaughan finished third, while Sam Hornish Jr. took the fourth spot.
Sadler competed in his last Nationwide race for Richard Childress Racing. He announced earlier this year that he was leaving RCR at season's end, and it's widely rumored that he will be joining Joe Gibbs' team for the upcoming season.
"It was disappointing to finish second, but the positives, we won some races together, won four races, won four poles, led some laps, and I made some really good friends on this team," Sadler said. "I feel like I just let the guys down. I really have a lot of respect for this team. We've got along so well, and it was probably one of the most fun seasons I've ever had as a race car driver."
Dillon, who is Sadler's teammate at RCR, earned rookie-of-the-year honors in Nationwide. He joined Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle as those drivers who have won the rookie title in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Dillon scored two wins and a Nationwide-season high 27 top-10 finishes.
"If you would have told me that running third in points and winning two races in our first year, I would take that from the very beginning," Dillon said.
Brian Scott and Ryan Blaney finished seventh and eighth, respectively, while Cole Whitt, also a rookie this season, completed the top-10. Danica Patrick placed 13th and finished the year 10th in the point standings.
Despite an 16th-place finish by Joey Logano, JGR's No. 18 team clinched the Nationwide owner's championship by a 23-point margin over Roush's No. 6 team. It's the fourth owner's title for JGR. The racing organization also won it from 2008-10. Logano, Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Ryan Truex, Drew Herring and Mark Martin shared driving duties in the No. 18 car this season.