HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Regan Smith made his debut with JR Motorsports a successful one by winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series season finale Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
While Smith got to celebrate in victory lane, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. comfortably clinched his second-straight NASCAR Nationwide Series championship with a sixth-place finish. The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed the series owner’s championship.
Smith, who will drive full time for JR Motorsports next year in the Nationwide Series, ran near the front all day but didn’t take command of the race until a restart on lap 178. A quick caution with 20 laps left killed Smith’s momentum and allowed the rest of the field to take another shot at him.
Smith got a great jump on the final restart with 15 laps left and pulled away from the rest of the field. Kyle Busch, seeking his first Nationwide victory of the year, got up to second on the restart and set his sights on Smith. Busch tried to close the gap, but Smith pulled away to his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in 103 starts.
“First and foremost I’ve got to thank all the guys at JR Motorsports,” said Smith, who hadn’t raced in the NASCAR Nationwide Series since 2007. “They build a heck of a race car and I’m excited about driving for them next year. They worked hard all year long and we’re going to do the same next year. We’re going to go out and contend for a championship. That is our plan.
“Hopefully tonight was part of a statement,” Smith added.
Busch ended the race in second, followed by Brendan Gaughan, Sam Hornish Jr. and Elliott Sadler.
Stenhouse, who is moving up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013, won six races this season en route to his second-straight series championship.
“These guys behind me (the crew) are what do it all the time. It is really cool to be up here and drive these race cars for Jack (Roush), for Ford, for Roush Yates, for everybody that puts their heart and soul into this,” Stenhouse said. “Everybody that helps us with this is just incredible. I’m just proud to do it two in a row.”
Sadler finished second in the championship standings to Stenhouse for the second-straight season. He was openly disappointed following the race.
“We raced as hard as we could every weekend, we just came up short,” Sadler said. “It didn’t take but a few races to put us behind. Indy was really big as far as momentum was concerned and definitely last week at Phoenix.
“I’m just proud of my guys. This was one of the most fun years I’ve ever had. Second is not what we wanted, but we got to hang our hat on some wins and poles and we ran competitive all year long.”
Austin Dillon claimed the NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year Award after finishing the season third in the overall standings. Hornish and Michael Annett completed the top five in the championship standings.