Joey Logano made it clear from the start that he had one of the cars to beat on Friday evening, and moreover that he was a man on a mission after losing out on a win so many times here at the past after dominating whole races.
"We've been so close to winning here," said Logano after finally pulling it off. "It feels so good to get here in victory lane. It's Bristol, one of the top three or four race tracks to win at."
Starting on the front row of the grid under the floodlights for the Food City 250 Nationwide Series race on the short half mile oval Bristol Motor Speedway, Logano had surged past polesitter Trevor Bayne at the green flag and decided that he liked the clear view he found there.
Logano stayed out in front through three early rapid-fire cautions that came soon after delayed start of the race, which had been half an hour later than scheduled to allow for track drying operations following a heavy thunderstorm that had washed out qualifying for the Sprint Cup drivers.
The first caution was on lap 5 when Justin Allgaier found the wall and sustained heavy damage after contact with Austin Dillon, which almost caught up championship points leader Elliott Sadler in the process. The Second came on lap 25 when Brad Keselowski also found the wall, this time after getting caught up behind the lapped car of Brad Teague.
"I got hit in the left-rear," explained Keselowski. "I don't know if that was my fault or not but I'll watch the replay and try to understand it. Bristol is not the place to be driving a damaged car. There's not any place where you want to have that and this sure as hell isn't one of them. It's just one of those deals."
Another brush with the wall for the wounded #31 of Allgaier on lap 33 had put the race back under yellow again, and it was at this point that Logano surrendered the lead to Sadler to head down pit road with what appeared at the time to be a tyre problem but was in fact an astute call from Logano's crew chief Adam Stevens.
"That's why I don't crew chief - I get paid to drive the car and it's a good thing Adam gets paid to do what he does!" laughed Logano, admitting that at the time he couldn't figure out why he'd been called in to pit road. "I came in and saw no one else and I was like, 'Uh oh, we screwed up here.' We were able to have a good enough car to pass a couple back and then the strategy worked out the way it needed to and here we are."
Sadler retained the lead at the restart from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., before a quick return to yellow on lap 45 for Jason Bowles' frontstretch spin. This time more of the leaders came in for regular stops, with only Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney opting to stay out at the front which meant that Logano was back up into third place ahead of Rick Crawford and Elliot Sadler. Stenhouse was able to make this strategy work, but Blaney quickly dropped back over the next ten laps of green flag racing that followed before the race was back under caution, this time for Brian Scott who had been nudged into an encounter with the wall by Kyle Busch.
Stenhouse remained on point for the green flag on lap 69, Sadler once again demonstrating that the inside line was not as effective for restarts as he lost out to Kasey Kahne. Joey Logano restarted form fifth place and was initially held up by lapped traffic, but by lap 86 he was back up to second place and hunting down Stenhouse for the lead. Even though he was clearly fast, it still took him another 20 laps of juggling with lapped traffic on the claustrophobic short oval before he finally took the top spot, just before the sixth caution of the night came out for a spin by Fain Skinner on the backstretch.
Everyone pitted this time, and a two tyre-only gamble put Kevin Harvick in the lead for the restart at the halfway point of the race and set up a protracted side-by-side battle between Sadler and Logano for second place, which Sadler initially clinched but which he lost again to Logano on lap 147. The top three were all covered by just six tenths of a second and looking finely balanced, but at last on lap 170 Logano was able to dart under Harvick and briefly put his nose in front.
Before he could seal the deal, however, the seventh caution of the night was out on the very next lap for a spin involving Benny Gordon out of turn 2. That meant Harvick was in charge for the restart ahead of Logano, Sadler, Stenhouse and Kyle Busch, and the #33 was able to retain the position despite intense pressure for the next 35 laps.
Finally, though, the pressure from Logano paid off. With the help of lapped cars including that of Jeremy Clements getting in the way on lap 215, Logano was able to get a little overlap underneath the #33 and prise Harvick off the optimum racing line to take the lead shortly before the eight caution of the race on lap 228 for John Wes Townley slamming into the wall in turn 4.
Harvick paid for his earlier pit road fortune by running out of fuel as he desperately sought to come onto pit road in time under the yellow flags, which essentially meant that he was out of contention for a win despite his impressive form all evening. Instead, the final duel for the chequered flag was to be between Logano, Stenhouse and Sadler, with Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne lurking right behind the leading trio and ready to pick up the pieces should any misfortune occur.
In fact it was Kahne who suffered the ill luck in the final caution of the evening, when a collision between polesitter Trevor Bayne and leading series rookie Austin Dillon caught out Kahne and sent the #38 for a spin, dropping him to the back of the lead lap for the final two-lap shootout to the chequered flag.
"The #3 car just drove over his head and took us out. That's all there is to it," said Bayne after exchanging heated words with Dillon after the race that only ended when Dillon's car owner and grandfather Richard Childress stepped in to break up the brewing confrontation.
Stuck with the inside line and having to bump Elliot Sadler aside at the restart, Ricky Stenhouse had no opportunity to do anything about challenging Logano for the lead and ended up half a second off the #18 at the line; Kyle Busch had been able to sneak an extra position from Sadler to finish in third place.
Stenhouse was quick to make his apologies to Sadler for their rough and tumble. "That was my fault. I should have lifted more and gave him more room," he said. "We got into the #2 there coming off turn four. I definitely didn't expect to do that. He definitely had a better race car than we did and I didn't expect to get that run on him that we did, but luckily he was able to save it. I definitely don't want to crash anybody."
Sadler accepted the apology but was less than happy, indicating that it would change the way he handled racing with Stenhouse in the future. "He said he didn't mean to hit us," said Sadler. "I'm glad he didn't wreck us. He pushed us out of the way, but it could have been ugly. It's not the finish we deserved. We should have finished second."
As for the third-place man, Kyle Busch hadn't changed his view on the reconfigured track at Bristol Motor Speedway, which he'd called "terrible" after trying it out in practice earlier on Friday. "I think they made it worse," he said again after the race. "It's definitely hard to pass out there ... Everybody is fighting for the top, trying to boot everybody out of the way. It's frustrating."
However, Sadler's fifth place finish behind Austin Dillon keeps him in rude health in the Nationwide Series championship standings, where he is now 19pts ahead of Stenhouse. Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. is a further 9pts back after a quiet day at the office for him nonetheless netted a solid tenth place finish.
"We were just a little off on our set-up tonight," admitted Hornish. "We just didn't get a handle on it. We gave it our best though and managed to bring home a top ten finish. I was hoping to do a little better than that, but hopefully we learned something."
Hornish finished just behind Danica Patrick, who had rallied from a rough day in the practice and qualifying sessions, come from the back while dodging several near misses from other people's wrecks, and overcome a late race pit lane speeding penalty to secure a decent ninth place finish with experience that should put her in good stead for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race, her first at the short half mile track.
Full race results, qualifying and practice times
, and championship standings