Defending Nationwide Series Champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. took his second win of the 2012 season Friday night in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, holding off late challenges by Denny Hamlin and Paul Menard to secure the victory.
With his fourth-career victory, Stenhouse closes the gap to point’s leader Elliott Sadler to four points as the series takes a week off before racing at Richmond International Raceway on April 27.
The Nationwide Series is the Triple-A of NASCAR, the last step before running Sprint Cup. Stenhouse fits the bill as the defending champion and is trying to be the first repeat champion since New Jersey’s Martin Truex, Jr. pulled off the feat in 2004 and 2005.
At the same time, drivers from Sprint Cup use the races to get experience on the tire, work on setups and win a race. Menard and Hamlin are full-time Sprint Cup competitors who run occasionally in the Nationwide Series for their respective car owners: Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs.
Menard in the Menards/Rheem Chevrolet started on pole and Hamlin in the SportClips Toyota started on the outside pole. Stenhouse, trying to extend the Roush-Fenway Racing team-winning streak at Texas to four, started third in his Pure Michigan Ford. Menard would lead from the first three circuits from pole, but Stenhouse soon took charge and led the next 44 laps until a caution for debris on the racetrack.
The ensuing round of pit stops saw Stenhouse lose multiple positions, with Menard and Hamlin benefitting the most from the issue. Between them, they would lead 105 of the next 115 laps, with cycles of pit stops and strategy altering the front of the order. However, Stenhouse would battle back and retake the lead under unusual circumstances.
Since the race is run at night, the track has floodlights to light up the entire speedway. A bank of lights in the infield entering turn three went out, causing a safety issue, and NASCAR threw a red flag to stop the race and fix the lights.
While Austin Dillon and David Ragan stayed out during the caution for track position, the other lead-lap cars pitted. Stenhouse would get a good restart and take the lead from Dillon on lap 177 of 200. A caution for Kurt Busch’s blown engine with 13 laps remaining brought the field back together. On the final restart, Hamlin took the lead for a lap, but Stenhouse passed him back and pulled away from the two Sprint Cup veterans for the victory.
Behind Stenhouse, Jr. in the top-five were Menard, who led a race-high 100 laps, Kasey Kahne, Hamlin, and Dillon. Positions 6-10 were Ragan, Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick, Michael Annett and Steve Arpin. Point’s leader Elliott Sadler finished 12th and lost 14 points to Stenhouse, Jr. to close the gap between the two title contenders. Dillon is third, 20 points behind with Sam Hornish, Jr. 54 points behind Sadler. Annett rounds out the top five, 64 points behind the leader.