Elliott Sadler was celebrating in victory lane for the second time in 2012 - and the season's only four races old. This one at Bristol Motor Speedway was particularly special to him, however.
"What a great day. This is Bristol. I wanted this worse than anything because I love this track so much," he said. "To win two of the first four races is awesome, and we've got to keep adding to them. There's blood in the water is what they say."
The Ford EcoBoost 300 got underway with the green flag being waved by former series champion Carl Edwards, and then settled into the longest ever caution-free stint ever to open a race on the half mile concrete oval, with no yellow for 104 laps.
Joey Logano had earlier won pole position with a lap of 15.448s (124.210mph) just 0.132s ahead of Trevor Bayne, and the two comfortably led the race for more than 50 laps until Kyle Busch arrived on the scene, having worked his way up from a starting position of eighth. He slid past Bayne on lap 54 and then took the lead from Logano on lap 68, showing just why he's won so many times at Bristol.
With such a long caution-free period, many cars were chased off the lead lap - including Danica Patrick - before a yellow finally emerged for Joey Gase hitting the wall, just in time for the field to make their pit stops. It proved a problematic stop for Busch, who dropped behind Logano again and then made slight contact with the #18 at the restart and then made an unscheduled pit stop less than 20 laps later with a serious vibration caused by a loose right front wheel. Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Scott also had stops to forget after they picked up speeding penalties.
Busch was now well down the running order (a lap down in 19th place after his emergency stop) leaving Logano to lead the race with Elliott Sadler in second at the midway point, when Sam Hornish Jr. went for a spin in turn 2. The leaders both came in for another pit stop, and the restart on lap 164 saw Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne, Justin Allgaier slot in ahead of Logano.
It was a very brief green flag, with TJ Bell hitting the wall hard in turn 2 on the very first time around, but that was a big boost to Busch who was able to get the wave-around back onto the lead lap. Bayne led again at the restart, but was soon under pressure from his Roush Fenway Racing team mate Stenhouse, the two of them running side-by-side at the front as the race entered its final 100 laps.
"It is good for us to be battling like that for the lead," insisted Bayne of the battle royale with Stenhouse, before admitting: "It's not fun when you are holding your breath every corner trying to hang on to one at Bristol!
Bayne held on, but he found himself held up by the lapped Danica Patrick and that gave Stenhouse the opportunity to slip past for the lead on lap 224, with Brad Keselowski also quickly getting past Bayne for second place. Elliott Sadler had just demoted Bayne to fourth when a new caution came out: Kyle Busch's recovery operation had ended up in a thumping encounter with the wall in turns 3 and 4 after a tyre seam melted on lap 260 with 40 laps to go, leaving Busch with right side damage albeit still running in 14th place and without losing a lap.
The caution allowed most of the leaders to come onto pit road one last time, but Sadler did a fake-out feint (which earned him a tap on the rear from Keselowski) before opting to stay out on track on older tyres in return for inheriting the lead for the restart on lap 272 ahead of Kasey Kahne, Stenhouse, Keselowski and Bayne.
"We knew the most important thing was where we needed to be on the restart,” insisted Sadler's crew chief Luke Lambert, who was at Bristol when Sadler won the first of his three Sprint Cup victories here in 2001 - except that instead of pit road, Lambert had been a high school student watching from the stands with his father. "I was here for that one. And I was pretty young!" said Lambert who is still only 28.
With the remaining laps zipping past in less than ten minutes there was no time for anyone to do anything about Sadler's new lead even though he was on older tyres: he claimed his second series win in just three weeks, making it two wins out of four races in 2012 - and that's after not winning a single race in 2011.
"After what I've been through the last couple of years in racing, this damn sure feels good," said a delighted Sadler after the race, who was also overjoyed that both his parents were actually at the track to see the Nationwide win for the first time.
Sadler's victory at Bristol also means that all four races so far in 2012 have been won by Nationwide Series regulars, rather than by Cup drivers such as Kahne, Keselowski, Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. who finished in the next four positions ahead of Stenhouse. Bayne dropped to eighth after losing out in a final battle with Justin Allgaier that saw them both go three-wide for a stretch with Ryan Truex, who finished in tenth place. Kevin Harvick finished just ahead in ninth, having being left fuming after being caught out by a speeding penalty during the final round of pit stops.
The win puts Sadler 25pts ahead of Stenhouse in the Nationwide championship standings, who is just ahead of Trevor Bayne - who may not have many further runs in the series in 2012, having only made it to his home track of Bristol thanks to "a friend of a friend" helping to put together a late one-off sponsorship deal with Knoxville business yourracecar.com.
"It was really fun," said Bayne of his day. "I think we might have played our hand a little bit too early by going to two tyres. I got too loose at the end on the right sides. We took the left sides and that freed the car up more. It was a bad situation to be in. We just got out there too soon. It is all good though.
"Ricky and I push each other hard and we did both lead laps and hopefully [team owner Jack Roush] is proud of that," he added. "Jack's got two stout teams here running hard and two drivers that hopefully are the future for his company."
Full race results, qualifying times and championship