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Year in Review: Season of growth in Nationwide

December 18, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Stenhouse leads way as series regulars make strides, enjoy tight points battle

All season long, 2011 Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made a habit of getting to the front of the pack and staying there. He led all full-time Nationwide Series drivers in wins, top-fives, top-10s and -- perhaps most importantly -- bonus points for leading laps.

It was that consistency that allowed Stenhouse to break away from a tight points battle that at one time had seven drivers separated by a total of seven points -- impressive, considering where Stenhouse was 18 months ago.

Nice perks

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is getting used to what it means to be a Nationwide champion ... and so far, it's all good.

After crashing eight laps into the May race at Charlotte in 2010 -- Stenhouse's fourth accident over a 10-race stretch -- and then failing to qualify the following week at Nashville, team owner Jack Roush gave Stenhouse a short-term sabbatical. It was a chance for the Mississippi native to clear his mind and reset himself.

Roush knew Stenhouse had the talent and the drive. He just wanted his young driver to understand how to use that to succeed.

"I've had people that could drive the race cars that didn't want it as bad enough, as bad as the people next to them, and then they couldn't realize the ultimate prize," Roush said after the final 2011 race at Homestead. "But Ricky wanted it bad. He was raised and raised himself to be a race car driver.

"This was his opportunity, and he tried to hang onto it too tight to start with so he couldn't realize the success that was there for him. But very quickly we got over that."

Stenhouse looked back on that moment as a huge turning point in not only his 2010 season, but in his career.

"The one biggest thing I think I learned from everything that Jack has done for me is that he cares about me as a person and really wanted me to succeed," Stenhouse said. "If he didn't care, he wouldn't have put me in the body shop. I think that's one thing I learned from my dad. He was tough on me growing up, but it was always for a reason.

"Jack has been an awesome team owner. He's done a lot of great things in NASCAR and I'm proud to be a part of this one little thing. He's been doing it a long time. He's got his ways of doing things and you've just got to look at the positives from it, and I think that was one of the biggest things I learned."

Lesson definitely learned.

Stenhouse was running at the finish of every race from that point on, and ended 2010 with back-to-back top-10 finishes. And when the schedule resumed at Daytona in February, Stenhouse seemed to pick up right where he left off. He finished eighth in the season opener, seventh behind the dominating performance of Kyle Busch at Phoenix, and eighth at Las Vegas.

But he wasn't the only driver who got off to a great start. Landon Cassill grabbed the early points lead before Reed Sorenson took command. Then Jason Leffler assumed the top spot after Bristol, only to have Stenhouse wrestle it away at Fontana.

All that time, veteran Elliott Sadler -- who was 27th in points after a miserable run at Daytona -- was steadily making up ground on the young guns. While Stenhouse was caught up in a wreck at Talladega, Sadler finished fifth -- moving him up into third place behind Leffler and Justin Allgaier.

After Nashville, the eighth race of the season, the standings couldn't have been much closer. Not only were Allgaier and Stenhouse tied at the top, but Leffler, Sorenson, Trevor Bayne, Sadler and Aric Almirola were all within seven points of the lead.

And throughout the rest of the spring and into summer, it seemed like nobody could take control at the top. Allgaier's third-place finish at Richmond and fourth at Darlington gave him a slight advantage at the start, but he stumbled badly at Dover, finishing 29th.

That put Sadler in front for three weeks, only to be caught and passed by Sorenson at Chicagoland. Stenhouse leapfrogged his way back into the points lead with a runner-up finish at Michigan, but Sorenson's victory at Road America put him out in front at the season's midway point.

"This was his opportunity, and he tried to hang onto it too tight to start with so he couldn't realize the success that was there for him. "


However, Sadler, Stenhouse and Allgaier were still well within striking distance, and it seemed at that point the driver who could make the fewest mistakes the rest of the way was going to be the one to claim the championship.

But it didn't take long for Stenhouse to separate himself from the pack, particularly after backing up his win earlier in the season at Iowa with another victory there when the series returned later in the year.

Allgaier faded out of contention with finishes of 27th at Indianapolis and 29th at Iowa. Sorenson's championship chances took a huge hit at Atlanta when he was involved in an accident touched off by contact with Allgaier, his teammate at the time.

And when Sorenson lost his ride at Turner Motorsports, Sadler was left as the only driver with a reasonable chance of catching Stenhouse. Despite finishing 30th at Nashville and being involved in a late-race accident at Indianapolis while running in the top five, Sadler closed to within 15 points of Stenhouse after Charlotte.

But Stenhouse proved to be more than up to the challenge. Despite blowing an engine at Montreal -- resulting in a 26th-place finish -- Stenhouse strung together nine consecutive top-10 finishes down the stretch to win the title going away.

Sadler's slimmest of chances disappeared with a wreck at Phoenix, and Stenhouse emphatically put the stamp on his 2011 title with a runner-up finish in the season finale at Homestead, leading 22 laps and recording his 26th bonus point of the year -- twice as many as Sadler totaled.

Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch led all drivers with eight wins apiece, but the Nationwide-only contingent had their share of visits to Victory Lane. In addition to Stenhouse's two wins and the one scored by Sorenson, three other drivers received the thrill of victory.

Edwards and Allgaier both ran out of gas on the final lap at Chicagoland, but Allgaier carried just enough momentum to cross the finish line first for his second career Nationwide win. Bayne backed up his Daytona 500 victory with a win at Texas by holding off Edwards and Denny Hamlin in the closing laps.

And open-wheel star Sam Hornish Jr. finally broke into the win column with a strong run at Phoenix, giving promise of perhaps more to come in 2012 when he hopes to return to the series full time.


• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first series regular to win the championship since Martin Truex Jr. in 2005.
• Trevor Bayne misses five races with a mysterious illness when he is fifth in points, only four points out of the lead.
• Either Brad Keselowski or Carl Edwards led the most laps in 10 of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks in 2011.
• Reed Sorenson loses his job with Turner Motorsports with five races remaining when he is third in points, only 49 points behind the leader.
• KHI shuts down its NNS program after 10 series wins.

Photo gallery -- Take a look back at the 2011 Nationwide Series season below: