After the recent traumas surrounding Penske Racing's Cup squad and the indefinite suspension of driver AJ Allmendinger, the team at last had something to celebrate this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. achieved a one-two finish for Roger Penske in the first Indiana 225 Nationwide Series race.
"I've been watching races here since I was a kid in Michigan," said Keselowski after claiming the win. "Everybody knows how special Indy is, and any win you can have here, whether it's the 500 or the Brickyard here, the first Nationwide race. Every race is special."
It's the first time that Nationwide cars have joined the Cup series with a race at the famous speedway, giving Keselowski a place in the record books that can never be taken away. But Keselowski owed more than a little thanks to some ill-fortune that had hit his main rivals in the closing stages of the 100-lap event.
First there was a spin for Kyle Busch who had led 51 of the laps and who appeared to have the dominant car but an Achilles Heel on pit lane; and then Elliott Sadler surged away at the restart, only to get handed a drive-thru penalty for jumping the restart.
That was especially ironic given what had happened at the very start of the race: polesitter Kasey Kahne had got a sluggish exit from turn 4 approaching the green flag and found himself in third place behind Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as they crossed the starting line - much to Kahne's annoyance. However, no one on the race official side of things seemed to think that anything was amiss and instead insisted that it was Kahne's fault for not getting up to speed properly. Case closed.
All Kahne could do after that was hunker down in third place some two seconds off the leaders, and ahead of a fierce battle for fourth place between Ty Dillon - in only the Truck Series regular's second Nationwide outing - and Brad Keselowski, who finally passed the youngster for the position going down the frontstretch on lap 11.
That took the race through to lap 15, at which point there was a scheduled caution to allow the teams to check over the cars. That was because since the last time the cars had extended practice runs on the speedway, the track had been briefly converted to its road course configuration for Friday's Grand-AM endurance race.
There was some congestion on pit lane, with Kurt Busch running into the back of Kyle Fowler making hard contact twice, while Paul Menard and Mike Bliss had a near miss of their own. None of that affected the race leader, but it was a rather costly visit to pit lane for Kyle Busch who dropped four spots as his team took extra care over loading the maximum amount of fuel into the #54: Hamlin, Kahne and Keselowski all bumped up a position, with Elliott Sadler the biggest gainer with a lead up into fourth position in front of Busch for the restart.
It was a minor inconvenience for Busch, who hustled his way back to the front five laps later with Brad Keselowski being dropped in second place after a few laps in the lead. At the other end of the field, James Buescher was the last car on the lead lap in 34th position, having had to come back onto pit road on lap 29 after being one of a pack of cars that got down too low on the track and churned up the grass verge, clogging the front grille of the #30 resulting in spiralling water temperatures that sent him back in for a quick clean-up before things got serious.
After falling almost two seconds off the leader, Keselowski came in on lap 37 for an slightly early pit stop; covering that move by the Penske team in order to safeguard himself from a caution handing Keselowski a major boost, Busch was in next time around with a hard lock-up of the brakes as he neared the pit road speed limit line, and Joey Logano and Ty Dillon were also in.
It was just as well that they did did, because the yellow was indeed out second later. Danica Patrick got into the back of Reed Sorenson in a battle over 14th and sent the #98 into a slow spin to the left: Sorenson caught it, but then the car dipped onto the grass verge and snapped round to the right perpendicular to Patrick who had no where left to go but plough into the side of it, and the two cars then went up into the wall in turn 1 causing considerable damage to both.
"I might have tapped him, I'm not sure. He was slowing down quite a bit. I'm sorry if I did anything," Patrick told pit lane reporters after being release from the in-field care centre. "I was trying to go around him, and when I went around him, I think he hooked right, maybe, or something like that. Just a bummer."
That left the likes of Kahne, Menard, Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish Jr. having to come in under the ensuing caution: when the race resumed, it was Busch ahead of Keselowski, Hanlin, Ty Dillon and Joey Logano, with Hornish in sixth place as the highest placed of the most recent stoppers. Busch once again got a good restart, thanks in part to a boost from Hamlin behind, and was soon pulling away from Keselowski at an alarming rate.
A debris caution with 37 laps to go put paid to Busch's breakaway, and set up a round of pit stops under caution. With the finish still some four to six laps out of reach on a full tank of gas, four cars - Hornish, Michael Annett, Brian Scott and Austin Dillon - all took a gamble on taking just two tyres this time around, leaving Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as the lead cars on a full set of new rubber.
Kyle Busch had suffered another off-colour pit stop and dropped eight places in the melee, while there was also some drama in Johanna Long's pit stall which saw a tyre escape form the pit stall and bounce into the path of Austin Dillon's car as he exited, although fortunately no harm was done.
That totally changed the dynamics of the race as Hornish got a good jump when the green flag came out for the restart on lap 68 and Annett quickly found himself passed by Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Elliott Sadler an a recovering Kyle Busch.
Keslowski knew he had limited time to make his move before Busch roared back to the front, so he took charge of the race from Hornish on lap 72 just before Brian Scott spun out of turn 4 to bring out the fourth caution of the afternoon. Scott managed to keep the #11 off the wall but at the cost of bouncing off innocent bystander Ty Dillon's car in the process causing some small scale but nonetheless nasty front side damage to both cars. Paul Menard took to pit lane to avoid the crash and ended up losing multiple positions by the time he blended back in.
Keselowski, Hornish, Sadler and Busch led the field to the restart, but the race went yellow again within seconds after, when Busch got loose trying to put the power down to get past Hornish on the inside line in turn 2. Busch had a wild spin in a cloud of tyre smoke but somehow avoided hitting the wall or collecting any other cars: while it cost him a huge number of positions even before he slouched back into pit lane for a new set of tyres to replace the flat-spotted set he'd just melted, he would at least be able to live to fight again for the rest of the race albeit down in 27th place and the last car on the lead lap.
Now with 18 laps remaining, Keselowski led Sadler, Hornish and Austin Dillon around for another restart: Sadler got a huge boost down the front straight while Keselowski seemed to spin his wheel, giving Sadler the lead of the race. It seemed that #2 was heading to victory lane, but then to his horror the black flag was being waved at him by the officials for jumping the restart.
He was furious, and his crew chief Luke Lambert remonstrated with race officials about the decision, but NASCAR were implacable and refused to budge. Lambert broke the news to his driver that he'd have to serve a drive-thru penalty, which dumped him all the way back down to 22nd place and cost him the lead in the championship standings.
"That is so wrong," fumed Sadler as he served his penalty. "NASCAR just took the championship away from me. They just took the damn championship right out of our hands," he yelled. And it was true that it seemed particularly unfair given NASCAR's earlier call over Busch's early move on Kahne at the start and given that Sadler couldn't have checked his speed with Dillon pushing him that hard without causing a massive pile up. But the rules are the rules, and NASCAR was sticking to them.
"The rules are that he cannot beat the number one starter to the line," explained NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton. "That's what he did. He clearly did that. He had him cleared by the time they got to the start/finish line, and made no attempt to give it back. That's the rules of the restart."
After that high drama, the action on track ended in an uneventful run to the chequered flag with Keselowski heading Hornish in a Penske 1-2 followed by the two Dillon boys, Ty now in front of Austin and Denny Hamlin in fifth comfortably ahead of Annett. With only one late adjustment - when Hamlin passed Austin Dillon for fourth place - that was how the race ended; Brad Keselowski duly became the first winner of a Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he and his crew set off for the traditional kissing of the yard of bricks marking the start/finish line.
Meanwhile, Elliott Sadler was counting the cost of that final restart controversy. He'd only managed to recover seven of those lost positions, but along with Hamlin's last minute pass on Austin it meant that Sadler had just managed to do enough to retain the lead in the championship by just 2pts - but that was little compensation to him as he fumed on pit lane and headed straight to the NASCAR hauler, accompanied by an equally irate car owner Richard Childress.
Full race results, qualifying and practice times
and current Nationwide Series championship points standings