By Luke Meredith/The Associated Press
NEWTON, Iowa — With most of the Sprint Cup stars busy with the All-Star Race at Charlotte, the NASCAR Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway was the perfect opportunity for one of the regulars in that series to to win for the first time this season.
The breakthrough was provided by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — and it wasn’t a fluke either.
Stenhouse of Olive Branch held off the only Cup points contenders in the field, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, and became the first Nationwide regular to pick up a victory since Justin Allgaier won at Bristol in March of 2010.
“I think it feels good for the Nationwide guys. I don’t think we’re the only Nationwide regular that’s going to win a race this year,” Stenhouse said. “To be that first one it feels good. I feel like since we got that first one out of the way, hopefully the next few will be a little easier.”
Edwards, who won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte on Saturday night, fell behind his Roush-Fenway teammate with 18 laps to go and finished second.
Keselowski, who captured the inaugural Nationwide event at Iowa in 2009, was third, followed by Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler.
Kenny Wallace, whose brother Rusty designed Iowa’s 7/8th-mile oval, joined Jason Keller as the only drivers to run 500 Nationwide races. He finished a season-best sixth.
Roush-Fenway teammates Stenhouse and Edwards swapped the lead a number of times down the stretch, but Stenhouse slipped free late and beat Edwards by over four seconds.
Stenhouse came out on top after the 17th and final lead change of the race and earned his first victory in 51 starts, giving the entire Nationwide series a boost in the process.
“I’m very happy for Ricky,” Keselowski said. “It’s good to see a Nationwide regular come out there and win a race. It’s been a little while.”
Allgaier, who started in the back after wrecking his main car in practice, stayed out while others were pitting and took a brief lead about 40 laps from the finish. Brian Scott then spun out in front of the leaders, drawing out a caution flag that put Edwards back in front with Stenhouse.
Given recent history, it seemed inevitable that Edwards would eventually grab the lead and pull off the weekend sweep. But it was Stenhouse’s No. 6 car that proved to be the strongest.
“The Mustang was just so fast all day. I was babying there for a little while and riding around with Carl, but I think when I drove it hard, it would take it,” Stenhouse said.
Edwards didn’t crumple the No. 60 car like he did to the No. 99 after winning the All-Star Race Saturday night, but in hindsight he might have tweaked it a bit too much during a late pit stop.
“I asked for some adjustments that I probably should have not asked for and Ricky was able to hold on for the win. I think our cars were about the same speed. He was just out front, and man he was wheeling it,” Edwards said.
The field was set on owner’s points with qualifying rained out. That put Drew Herring of Joe Gibbs Racing on the pole, even though Herring hadn’t run a Nationwide race all year until he got to Iowa.
Herring started strong, leading for the first 38 laps before being passed Michael McDowell in Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. McDowell led for 19 laps, more than double the total he had in 72 previous series starts.
Predictably, both faded. They finished well, though, with McDowell taking seventh and Herring clearing in 12th.
Sunday also marked the first time three women ran the same Nationwide race. Veteran Jennifer Jo Cobb started along with the Cope twins, Angela and Amber, who were making their series debuts.
Both Copes ran into trouble midway through the race, spinning out in similar fashion. Cobb was 26th, Angela finished 28th and Amber was 32nd.
This was the first of two Nationwide events at Iowa this season after the relatively new track drew strong crowds for solo races in 2009 and 2010. The track drew another sellout crowd Sunday, and officials are optimistic they could draw even more fans for the second race in August.
The Iowa Speedway didn’t need to lean on the Sprint Cup stars to sell tickets, either, so it proved to be the perfect spot for a Nationwide driver like Stenhouse to celebrate a milestone win.
“We’ve had fast cars. we just haven’t been able to seal the deal,” Stenhouse said. “We weren’t the fastest car in practice this week, but we had a car that could race.”