It was a repeat, but it wasn’t easy.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scored his second straight Nationwide Series championship this season, again outracing Elliott Sadler for the title. The road was considerably rougher this year, however. Sadler, who lost the title to Stenhouse by 45 points in 2011, was very much in the race until the closing weeks of the season this year. He led the standings after 26 (of 33) races and retained a shot at the title until the final race at Homestead.
But Sadler’s march hit a big pothole in the next-to-last race at Phoenix when a crash with one lap to go dropped him to a 22nd-place finish. Stenhouse finished third in the race and took a 20-point lead over Sadler to Homestead.
Despite some anxious moments in the closing laps at Homestead, as Stenhouse raced dangerously with the other leaders in search of a race win, he finished sixth, easily high enough to win the championship. Regan Smith, driving for JR Motorsports, won the race – and that was Stenhouse’s goal. Team members sent the message, via radio, for him to back out of the fierce racing at the front to avoid a potentially catastrophic crash, one that could have cost him the title.
"I am just pretty disappointed that we didn't win the race,” Stenhouse said. “We expect to win every single weekend. That's how you should show up to the race track.
"Obviously, the performance this year was a lot better than last year. It is special – that first championship. But when you can go out and you are a car to beat every week, that is what classifies a great year. I felt like we were that car this year. Everybody knew that we were going to have to be beaten to win that race. I think that makes this year more special."
Stenhouse won six times, had 19 top fives and finished in the top 10 26 times. He bounced back from a misstep in the season opener at Daytona, where an accident left him 19th.
Sadler finished second, followed by Austin Dillon, Sam Hornish Jr. and Michael Annett.
Danica Patrick, scheduled to race full time in the Sprint Cup Series next season (along with Stenhouse), finished 10th in points, becoming the first woman driver to finish in the seasonal top 10 in a major NASCAR series.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.