The defending NASCAR Nationwide Series points champion extended his winning streak at Iowa Speedway.
Stenhouse dominated the field for most of the race to capture the checkered flag at the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 in front of 34,000 fans Sunday. The win is the third straight at the 0.875-mile track for Stenhouse, who swept the two Nationwide races held here last year.
“Man, this one was fun,” Stenhouse said. “I love dominating those races.”
The Roush Fenway Racing driver claimed his third win in 10 starts this season, extending his series lead to 28 points over Elliott Sadler, who was second. Stenhouse grabbed his first lead by overtaking Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap 31 en route to leading 209 laps, tying an Iowa Speedway record set by Busch in 2010.
“It feels good to win three in a row,” Stenhouse said. “It was a lot of fun, leading that many laps.”
He became the first Nationwide driver to win three straight at a track since Kyle Busch won three straight at Texas Motor Speedway in 2009-2010. The streak was not a conversation topic, but no words were needed.
“That’s what we set out to do,” Stenhouse said. “We didn’t talk too much about it in the shop, but everybody knew we had one thing in mind coming here.”
The rest of the field could not keep up with Stenhouse, who blew away the field. It is different than Stenhouse’s win last August, when his engine failed on the final lap and he was pushed across the finish line by teammate Carl Edwards, who couldn’t avoid the accident.
“This is the way you want to run,” Stenhouse said. “You want to come out here and dominate.”
Cautions were the only thing that proved capable of closing the gap on Stenhouse’s leads, which grew to nearly five seconds at times. He held off the likes of Kurt Busch, Sadler and Justin Allgaier during late restarts.
The yellow flag caused Stenhouse to drop as low as fourth, after Danica Patrick’s blown right front tire slid her into the wall in the early going. Cole Whitt restarted at the lead spot, but Stenhouse soon passed Sadler for the lead near the midway point. Things became interesting with 65 laps remaining as Busch completed his move from worst to first after a restart. Less than a lap later, Stenhouse moved back into first and ran to Victory Lane.
“When you have a race car like we did you don’t ever want a caution to come out. It does and that’s just the way it is,” Stenhouse said. “I just wanted to make sure I was cautious. The race was just super-fast to get back to the front.”
The progression continues for Stenhouse and his team as they stay ahead of their pace set last year. Crew chief Mike Kelley prepared his team for a tough test, stressing it needed to work harder than ever to avoid losing steam.
“When you get on streaks or have a good deal going that if this was a race we didn’t win, I didn’t want it to kill our momentum,” Kelley said. “We had finished better at every track to this race than we did last year. We were 76 points ahead of where we were last year after nine races.”
With no Sprint Cup race Sunday and most racing fans’ eyes focused on Newton, the win had added importance.
“To come here to Iowa in front of a packed house,” Kelley said, “and to win the race the way we did today was a bold statement about where our team is and who our driver is.”
Sadler, who started on the pole, earned his third straight top-five finish at Iowa Speedway, leading two laps. He said the team made key adjustments through the race and was running its best at the end. The fourth and final caution, when former Motocross champion Travis Pastrana suffered electrical problems and bowed out at 26th hampered any chances to catch Stenhouse.
“It’s frustrating to finish second. I thought we had a car that could win the race,” Sadler said. “I’m proud of my guys to rebound the way they did.”
The frustration for Sadler continued after the event, when his No. 2 Chevrolet was found to be too low in post-race inspection. Officials said the issue would be further discussed next week at the NASCAR R&D center in Concord, N.C.
Michael McDowell snuck in late to place third. Austin Dillon was fourth, and increased his lead for Rookie of the Year honors.
McDowell said his car excelled on long runs. He climbed up to third after the third caution, but was assessed a speeding penalty in the pits, dropping him to the back of the pack.
“I just made a mistake,” McDowell said. “There were a lot of lapped cars between first and second and I tried to close the gap a little bit and just overdid it.
“It just showed how strong our car was.”
Busch had a strong run, finishing fifth after placing eighth at the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Drew Herring qualified the car 31st, but Busch started at the back.
“It’s great to sniff the lead, get close to it,” Busch said. “It’s just missing a couple little components.”
He was third when he got caught up with McDowell on the final lap. Busch saved the car in a lengthy sideways slide to preserve a fifth-place finish.
“At the end, my weak spot was Turn 1,” Busch said. “We were loose getting in there all day. McDowell got down in there, I was trying to hold him off and that’s what racing is all about. Two guys got together. Yeah, we got the short end of the stick but I don’t care.”
Darrell Wallace Jr., who made his Nationwide Series debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, placed ninth.