0

Stenhouse Jr. wins Nationwide Series championship

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drove dozens of laps as a champion -- and didn't even know it.

Stenhouse won the Nationwide Series title long before the checkered flag dropped Saturday at the season finale.

Stenhouse clinched his first championship about 30 laps into the 200-lap race, securing the title when six cars officially dropped out of the 300-mile event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stenhouse was running fourth when NASCAR officials announced he had wrapped up the title. He finished second behind Brad Keselowski. Carl Edwards was third, followed by Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler.

Edwards clinched the owner's title for Jack Roush, who is looking to become the first owner in NASCAR history to win both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide championships in the same season. Edwards leads Tony Stewart by three points heading into Sunday's season finale.

Edwards and Stenhouse parked their cars nose to nose and did a double burnout in celebration.

Sadler, who started the race 41 points behind Stenhouse, finished second in the season points standings.

Stenhouse knew he held a comfortable lead over Sadler, needing to finished 37th or better to secure the championship a year after earning the rookie of the year honors. As expected, Stenhouse played it safe although his day was far from trouble free.

The team had communication issues early. Apparently, someone not associated with the team left the push-to-talk button open on a radio, causing problems that eventually got solved by switching channels. Later, with about 70 laps remaining, Stenhouse scraped the wall for the second time.

None of the mishaps did much to dampen Stenhouse's day.

Crew chief Mike Kelley gave Stenhouse the news a little past the halfway point, saying, "All right, man, I got the word. You are the champion."

Kelley knew how many cars were out of the race early and considered telling Stenhouse then. But just as he started the sentence over the radio, he stopped and said, "Keep doing what you're doing."

Stenhouse did.

He ran near the front much of the race. And he had the lead late until spinning his tires on a restart and getting stuck in some traffic. He nearly ran down Keselowski on the final lap, but came up a few car lengths short.

Stenhouse and Sadler were the only drivers still eligible for the title.

Stenhouse's guaranteed finishing spot improved just after the green flag as "start and park" cars headed to the garage. Morgan Shepherd, Fain Skinner, Scott Speed and Matt Carter all drove just a few laps before calling it quits. Josh Wise and Chase Miller followed them a few laps later, making it official.

The rest was a mere formality.

Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne finished 11th. Former IndyCar star Danica Patrick crossed the line 32nd after wrecking shortly after a restart with 14 laps to go.

Sprint Cup regulars were ineligible for the Nationwide title. NASCAR officials instituted a new rule this year that prevented drivers from racing for championships in more than one series.

The change was made in hopes of bolstering the identity of up-and-coming drivers in the second-tier series.

The series has been dominated by Cup stars, with Keselowski (2010), Kyle Busch (2009), Bowyer (2008), Edwards (2007) and Kevin Harvick (2006) winning the previous five Nationwide titles.