LAS VEGAS — Nationwide races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway have been dominated by Sprint Cup drivers, big names like Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth crossing the checkers first since the inaugural race in 1997.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ended the run in emphatic fashion.
Stenhouse, the defending series champion, led the final 54 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday to become the first non-Sprint Cup driver to win a Nationwide race on the 1.5-mile oval.
"This is really cool," Stenhouse said. "Looking at all the fans in the stands before the race was really cool and to win the race was fun."
Stenhouse was the top Nationwide rookie in 2010 and earned the season championship last year after winning two races and posting 26 top-10 finishes. He opened this season by finishing 19th at Daytona after being caught up in a late wreck and entered Saturday's race fifth in points after taking third at Phoenix last week.
Stenhouse started sixth at Las Vegas and stayed near the front, taking the lead with 54 laps left. He pulled away from Mark Martin out of two cautions down the stretch of the 200-mile race and had a cushion of nearly 6 seconds when he crossed the checkers at the tri-oval in the desert.
Martin, who had won four of his previous six Nationwide starts at Las Vegas, finished second in his first race for Joe Gibbs Racing. Polesitter Elliott Sadler to finish third after a lengthy mid-race pit stop to fix a vibration and Danica Patrick was 12th in the first race at LVMS since IndyCar star Dan Wheldon was killed in a fiery crash last fall.
"We kind of new where we started that if the track did what we thought it would toward the middle of the race, our car would start to find its way to the front," said Mike Kelley, Stenhouse's crew chief. "And it did."
Martin was in the No. 18 Toyota that Kyle Busch drove in 38 of his series-record 51 wins before moving on to start his own team. The 53-year-old was solid in the middle of the race, leading 44 laps and managed to stay behind Stenhouse after the two cautions. He just didn't have enough to keep up with Stenhouse on the restarts or track him down over the closing laps.
"That was one serious beatdown he put on me that last run. I mean just a beatdown," Martin said. "I kept up with for a while and about wrecked five times, and that's it. I'm not ashamed to say, it wasn't even close."
Patrick was back at LVMS for the first time since Wheldon was killed in IndyCar's 2011 season finale.
The two-time Indy 500 champion died on Oct. 16 when his car was involved in a 15-car pileup on the 12th lap and sailed into a catch fence, where his head struck a pole.
Patrick watched the wreck unfold in front of her and narrowly missed becoming involved. So instead of a triumphant departure from IndyCar, she headed off to NASCAR dejected after seeing a friend die in front of her.
Patrick was somber when she arrived at LVMS on Friday, saying the walk from the garage back to the media center brought back a flood of memories.
She was able to keep her emotions in check once inside the car, though, putting together a decent qualifying run to start 12th in Saturday's race.
Patrick struggled early, dropping toward the back of the pack before starting to move up. She made a daring pass around lap 60, ducking under two cars to move up to 16th, and was 10th coming out a caution near the race's midpoint.
Patrick moved up to sixth, but fell back a few spots on a restart with about 50 laps left and never made up the ground.
"It was one of those day where the result didn't really show how I felt about my car," she said. "It was a solid day. Wish we could have gotten in the top 10, that was my goal, but there's not really much I can do about that. I was trying."
Sadler was strong early, but the team decided to lift the hood to fix his car after he complained of vibrations midway through the race. He returned to the track 20th and made his way back through the field to pull out a solid finish after breaking a 14-year winless streak in the Nationwide series last week in Phoenix.
"We showed a lot of guts and effort today," said Sadler, the points leader, 15 ahead of Austin Dillon. "We had a good race car and anytime you can go through what we did today and get a third-place finish, we've very happy with that."