Between them, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard led for over two-thirds of the entire 200-lap race distance in Friday's night's O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 under the floodlights at Texas Motor Speedway, so it was only fitting that in the end, the battle for the lead came down to a final sprint to the line for the two of them after a late final caution.
"One thing that I do enjoy about this is that we're running up front every week," said reigning series champion Stenhouse. "We have a shot to win every week, and that's all we can do, and when we can finish it off like that, it's a positive."
Menard had started from pole position but lost the lead to Stenhouse on lap 4, with the reigning series champion then retaining the top spot and pulling out a big lead through to the first caution of the evening for debris on lap 45. A problem with a right front tyre saw Stenhouse slip back to sixth place for the restart - behind Menard, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler.
Menard was able to hold off a surge from Kahne at the green flag to keep the lead through to the next caution, which was triggered by a spin by Brad Keselowski in turn 4 on lap 90. The restart attempt a few laps later saw Blake Kock spin out of turn 2 and hit the inside wall after being tagged by Kurt Busch, immediately putting the race back under yellow for the third time of the evening. The caution period was longer than anticipated, after a bank of floodlights around turn 3 briefly failed.
Racing was under way again on lap 103, with the running order reshuffled by cautions and pit stops to leave Denny Hamlin ahead of Stenhouse, Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Menard. But Stenhouse suffered a poor restart and fell back dramatically before gathering it back together, giving Menard the opportunity to shoot down the inside line and mount a three-wide battle for the lead with Hamlin and Sadler.
Menard won that battle, and Stenhouse quickly dealt with his restart gremlins to bounce back into second place once more with Sadler a fair way back in third. As the race reached three-quarter distance the field started to cycle through a green flag pit stop sequence that could conceivably see them through to the end without the need for another visit to pit lane if they conserved fuel, after which Menard's lead over Stenhouse was 1.8 seconds with Sadler, Kahne and Austin Dillon filling out the top five.
The action was rudely interrupted on lap 162, however, when the turn 3 lights failed for the second time that night. The race was briefly red-flagged to allow technicians to investigate the problem and change circuit breakers, and everyone took the opportunity to pit again after all to ensure fuel and worn tyres didn't become deciding factors in the result. Racing resumed ten minutes later with Austin Dillon and David Ragan in the lead having gambled on not coming back to pit road for tyres or fuel; Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kasey Kahne followed them taking the green flag on lap 172.
Once again it was the ongoing duel between Menard and Stenhouse that caught the attention at the restart as they battled side-by-side for second: Stenhouse won this round, and was rewarded by a prompt opportunity to take the lead on lap 176 when Austin Dillon twitched coming out of turn 2 on his older tyres. Stenhouse needed no second invitation and nipped through to the front, with Menard following his cue past the rookie to take second.
There would be one final caution on lap 186 when Kurt Busch's engine expired in clouds of smoke, leaving Stenhouse to manage the restart with just six laps to go. It was a fierce battle at the green flag with Stenhouse, Menard and Denny Hamlin going three-wide for the lead out of which Stenhouse somehow managed to come out with the prize, while Menard took longer to clear Hamlin for second and the critical delay allowed Stenhouse to pull out several car lengths over them both which was sufficient to give him a 1.4s lead by the chequered flag.
"That last restart, it was crazy man," said Stenhouse. "I think I spent the whole five laps or whatever it was under caution just praying for a good restart and everything worked out for us ... I had to drive it in turn three wide open with Denny on the left rear of us and got us a little bit loose but we managed to hang on and pull it off."
Stenhouse will now have to make good on his promise to give a traditional five-gallon cowboy hat to his crew: "That's right. This whole team is getting them and they deserve it. They have worked really hard all year long."
Hamlin lost third place to Kasey Kahne in the final moments, while Auston Dillon and David Ragan managed to make their older tyres work to hold on to fifth and sixth places by the finish ahead of Allgaier.
Danica Patrick finished in eighth position, her best result of the year so far since her switch to full time stock car racing.
"It's nice to have a good finish for the team, for GoDaddy, for everybody that works really hard," she said after the race. "We've kind of had a tough going to the start of the year, so that was fun."
Michael Annett and Steve Arpin rounded out the top ten ahead of Sam Hornish Jr and Elliot Sadler, but 12th place was still just enough to allow him to retain the lead in the Nationwide Series championship standings by 4pts over Stenhouse.Full results
, qualifying and practice times
and championship standings