Making his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start in five years, Smith drove the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet to victory in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, beating polesitter Kyle Busch to the finish line by 1.375 seconds.
As Smith scored his first victory in the series for the team that has hired him full-time for next year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rolled to a workmanlike, problem-free sixth-place result to lock up his second straight Nationwide championship.
Brendan Gaughan ran third, followed by Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon. Elliott Sadler came home ninth and held on to second place in the final series standings.
When Smith last raced in the Nationwide Series in 2007, there were no tapered spacers restricting horsepower, and the body styles were markedly different. On Saturday, Smith showed how well he could adapt.
“For me, I think there’s been a ton of changes since ’07,” Smith said. “The tapered spacer, I think, is probably the biggest thing, because it chokes the motor down so much. That took some time to get used to in the first practice, and even at the start of the second practice, I was still getting used to what I could do with the throttle.
“It didn’t hurt that I had a fast race car from the start, so I didn’t have to worry about a lot of things. We made a lot of changes and tried a lot of stuff, but, at the same time, that balance was always there pretty close… It’s definitely a good start.”
Stenhouse is the sixth driver to win consecutive Nationwide Series titles, joining Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, Randy LaJoie, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. with that distinction. He’s also the first Roush Fenway Racing driver to achieve that feat.
“It’s really neat to be able to go back-to-back, when only now six of us have done it,” said Stenhouse, who will drive full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Roush Fenway next year. “That’s pretty special. It really makes me see how hard that 48 team (of Jimmie Johnson) works on the Cup side with five in a row.
“It was a great two years and we’ve had a lot of fun. We look forward to our opportunity next year.”
Trying to extend an eight-year streak of winning at least one Nationwide race per year, Busch led 65 of the first 66 laps, pulling out to a lead of more than nine seconds over second-place Regan Smith. The dynamic of the race charged dramatically, however, after two quick cautions, the first on Lap 66 for Ryan Truex’s crash in Turn 4.
Busch’s Toyota developed an extremely loose handling condition, and Smith and Dillon took turns at the front of the field. As the race progressed, Dillon became every bit as dominant as Busch had been earlier, building a lead of more than eight seconds over Smith before a cycle of green-flag pit stops that ran from Lap 145 through Lap 152.
Dillon’s lead shrank to 3.093 seconds after the exchange of pit stops, and Smith subsequently chopped it down to 1.7 seconds before NASCAR called the fourth caution, for debris, on Lap 174.
Busch took advantage to the late cautions to regain his form but was no match for Smith over a 15-lap green-flag run to the finish.
Danica Patrick ran 13th and finished 10th in the final Nationwide standings, the highest ever for a female driver in one of NASCAR’s top three touring series.