For Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 winner Regan Smith, that makes one down, who knows how many to go? For Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., it’s two down, time to go.
In Smith’s first race for the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Nationwide team for which he will drive throughout next season, and his first Nationwide Series race since 2007, he barged to the front with 21 laps to go and kept Kyle Busch at bay after the last restart for a 1.375-second win at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s Smith’s first Nationwide win. He ran two Sprint Cup races for Earnhardt this season when Earnhardt missed those races with a concussion, but Earnhardt said they didn’t have the plan to run the car until a couple of weeks ago.
“Other than the [series] champions, only three people are going to walk out of here happy from Homestead this year,” Smith said. “We’re one of the teams that can.”
He’s the champ
One of those series champions, Stenhouse, came into Saturday’s finale with a 20-point lead on Elliott Sadler and 25 points up on Austin Dillon. Finishing sixth gave Stenhouse his second Nationwide Series title in a row, by 23 points over Sadler and 24 points over Dillon. Next season, Stenhouse jumps to the Sprint Cup Series’ No.17 car now being driven by Matt Kennseth.
Stenhouse also kept series points leaders perfect, two for two, this weekend in getting their leads to the checkered flag for the season. Sprint Cup series leader Brad Keselowski can complete the hat trick in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400.
Despite the title, Stenhouse initially was disappointed with finishing the sixth in the race, prompting a less-than-elated first reaction to the title.
“We lost the race,” he explained. “I didn’t come to Homestead, my favorite race track, to run sixth. We’ll celebrate the championship on Monday.”
Only the vicissitudes of pack racing off restarts seemed to threaten Stenhouse’s championship hopes. Both Stenhouse and car owner Jack Roush said Stenhouse’s spotter got so edgy, Stenhouse spent the last 10 laps holding open the microphone on the driver end to block out the spotter.
No such worries dogged Smith once he took the lead.
“We got the car really dialed in after that last stop,” Smith said. “Up until that point, we didn’t have first-run speed, so we needed just a little bit of an adjustment to have the speed we needed on the first run until the tires got old. On old tires, I don’t feel like there was a car in the field that could compete with us. At least, that’s what they were telling me. If they were lying, it was a good lie because I believed it.”
Pole-sitter Busch’s second matched his second in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race and the too many seconds and thirds for his liking this season across every series he drove. The series now sponsored by Nationwide finished a season without a Kyle Busch victory since 2003.
“I’ve got to start living differently, I guess,” said Busch, who led 89 laps.
At the opening green flag, both the race and Busch whooshed past. The longest green run to start a Homestead Nationwide race lasted 66 laps, all but one during pit stops led by Busch, until Ryan Truex tapped the wall running the high line off Turn 4. But at sundown, Busch felt like he was winning, but was in the process of losing again. He said the track got “looser and looser … just kind of getting slick” and they couldn’t make the right adjustments.
“We had a really good car there early,” Busch said. “We were super fast. And then, the first adjustment was OK, the next two weren’t very good and slowed us down, made us really, really loose. Then, Mike Beam threw everything at it there on the second-to-last pit stop and the car got a lot better.”
Behind Busch, Stenhouse hung a spot or two behind second-place Sadler, whose series of late-season misfortunes eventually continued. A lug nut fell off a left side tire on Lap 95, causing Sadler to drop back in the pack and into memories of his loose lug nut during last year’s race here.
Then, “something went through the front of my car and knocked the whole grille in,” Sadler said. “It’s one of those months, one of those seasons, the way it ended up. I felt like we were maybe not as good as the No. 54 [Busch], but I felt like we were just as good as the No. 5 [Smith]. The last restart, going to turn and it wouldn’t turn, and really got tight. My car hadn’t [driven] like that all weekend long.”