Austin Dillon might not have enjoyed the same domination that he did in the previous Nationwide visit to Kentucky Speedway when he claimed his maiden series win with victory in the Feed the Children 300 night race in June after leading 192 of the 200 race laps, but a problem-free run or the #3 put him on top at the same time that his rivals succumbed to accidents and technical gremlins.
"We weren't the best car, but we were able to fight, fight, fight and get out in front there at the end," said Dillon on victory lane. "When we got the chance to take the lead, I just took it."
Stenhouse had got the better start to the Kentucky 300 on the inside line in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, managing to pull up in front of pole sitter Dillon right before a rapid first caution came out for Joe Nemechek spinning on the backstretch. Even though less than two laps had passed under green, Kurt Busch had already improved to 27th place after having been forced to start from the back of the 43-car grid because of having missed qualifying while heading up from New Hampshire where he is also competing in this weekend's Sprint Cup race.
Stenhouse kept the lead at the restart on lap 6 - although he was warned by officials for being too slow to the green flag - while behind him Sam Hornish Jr. gave a light tap on Austin Dillon's shoulder and helped himself through into second place. Then another rapid caution materialised, this time for Brad Sweet spinning in turn 3 and being lucky not to be collected by either the wall or the oncoming pack of traffic.
Stenhouse, Hornish and Dillon fell into line again at the restart on lap 13 with Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier immediately behind them. Hornish and Dillon resumed their debate over which of them deserved second place, which enabled Stenhouse to start to stretch out a comfort margin over them both as there was finally a sustained period of green flag running through to lap 30. That's when the pre-scheduled competition caution was brought out to allow teams to check how their cars were performing on the 'green' track, following the overnight rainstorm that had blasted over Kentucky Speedway after the Friday evening Truck Series race.
The pit stops proved a disaster for race leader Ricky Stenhouse, who was hustled out of his stall only to collide with Eric McClure who was just pulling into his own pit box several slots again. The impact was hard enough for Stenhouse's crew to drag him back to check the #6 over for any potential punctures or tyre rub issues relating to the damaged right front quarter panel, and as a result Stenhouse dropped all the way back to 28th position.
That left Dillon in charge of the race for the restart on lap 36 with Hornish, Allgaier and Joe Gibbs Racing duo Brian Scott and Drew Herring (the latter in his first outing in a Nationwide car this season) rounding out the top six, but Herring was sent for a spin through the grass with the help of a bump from Michael Annett. Although Herring recovered and was remarkably unharmed - albeit dropped back down to 28th place by the time he got back into line - it triggered the fourth caution of the afternoon on lap 39.
Hornish got the jump on a sluggish Dillon at the next restart on lap 44; Dillon also got passed on the inside by Sadler and the outside by Allgaier, but a little bobble for Allgaier enabled Dillon to recover the third spot. Sadler was another matter altogether, as the #2 car took off to successfully challenge Hornish for the lead. Behind Dillon there was also Kurt Busch arriving on scene, moving up into the top five and looking impressively strong after having started from the back.
Ricky Stenhouse had been hoping for the same sort of forward momentum back up through the field after his pit lane mishap. Instead, he ended up pushing it too hard and on lap 48 he lost the backend of the car into the wall at turn 4, doing more damage with this hit than the original incident with McClure had done. His right rear tyre was shredded and he was forced to crawl onto pit road under green, and the amount of sorting out the crew had to do with the now-crumpled right rear of the #6 put Stenhouse two laps down and in 31st place by the time he resumed. The race win that had appeared so possible early in the race was emphatically out of the question: now it was just about damage limitation in the Nationwide championship points standings, especially with main rival Elliott Sadler now leading the race by over two seconds from the other major title contenders, Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish.
Green flag pit stops were looming when the fifth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 87. Elliott Sadler had just put Taylor Maslem and Mike Wallace a lap down when he had to pull up the track to avoid a slow car entering pit lane: that forced Maslem to brake, and Wallace couldn't react in time and got into the back of the #19, sending Maslem spinning through the infield grass off turn 4.
That meant that the majority of the field got to pit under yellow. Exceptions to the rule were Justin Allgaier (who had pitted very early under green complaining of loose handling) and Danica Patrick, who had been suffering from spiking oil and water temperatures as the result of a totally clogged grill and needed to come in a few laps before the caution. Allgaier got the wave-around to get back onto the lead lap, but Patrick was still a lap down.
"The one thing that threw us off was the grill got covered," confirmed Danica after the race. "I felt like it was dipping in speed. We had to make a stop like 15 laps early. It's a bummer, I was hoping for a good day."
Dillon beat Sadler in the race off pit road to lead at the restart, but Sadler got the better restart on lap 93 to resume the lead again. Behind them, Sam Hornish yielded third place to Kurt Busch after just managing to survive a scary moment that could easily have ended in disaster, and Brian Scott ended up scraping the wall coming off turn 2 and dropped out of the top ten - but both Hornish and Scott were able to continue and no caution was required as the race passed the halfway point.
There was also no caution required when the #54 started to smoke heavily on lap 129, which forced the team to being Kurt Busch onto pit road and take the car behind the wall to the garage for a seized rear gear, the latest of a series of frustrating glitches for the fledgling Kyle Busch Motorsports Nationwide team in its maiden year of competition. Busch's retirement left Sadler still out on front with a one second lead over Dillon and then a five second gap back to Hornish, Cole Whitt and Drew Herring with only 13 cars now showing on the lead lap.
Just when the die was looking well and truly cast, Sadler was on the radio reporting to his pit crew that his steering was starting to lock up. Under the next round of green flag pit stops, Sadler came in on lap 146 and the team confirmed that the power steering was leaking fluid and failing as a result: there was nothing that could be done in any reasonable time and so he was told he would just have to tough it out for the remaining quarter of the race. Sadler could be seen beating the steering wheel with frustration as the realisation sank in that the win at least was slipping away from him.
"We just can't buy any luck," he said after the race. "We gave up some points today, six or seven points. We had a tyre [problem] last week [when I was] leading the race, and then leading the race this week and the power steering went out."
Dillon leapfrogged Sadler during this cycle of pit stops and was in front on lap 160 when Eric McClure went for a spin through the infield grass. Sadler was one of a very few number of cars to come back onto pit lane under the ensuing caution to take on new right side tyres in the hope that the fresh rubber would give him some small compensation for the problematic power steering. Coming in dropped him back to seventh place, and it was clear when the race went back under green that the effort of regaining those lost positions was agonisingly slow hard work with his steering in the state it was in.
With 20 laps to go, Dillon held a 1.5 second lead over Hornish who had seen off a push from Brendan Gaughan for second place; Drew Herring was holding on to fourth place ahead of Sadler, who had finally managed to pass Cole Whitt and Michael Annett. Further back, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had managed to recover his way back up to 17th place with his damage limitation push, even though he was now three laps off the lead.
While Hornish tried one final push over the closing laps of the race to close down the gap to the leader, the situation did not change over the concluding laps and Dillon duly crossed the line over a second ahead of the #12 to claim the victory. Only ten cars finished on the lead lap by the finish.
Sadler's recovery to fifth puts him back into the lead of the Nationwide standings by 4pts over Ricky Stenhouse, while Dillon's victory puts him within 19pts of Sadler's tally. With six races remaining in the 2012 season, Sam Hornish is starting to lose touch in fourth place, 46pts off the lead.
"I messed up at Richmond and Ricky had some bad luck today, and I think it's going to go back and forth from now all the way to Homestead." said Sadler. "It's going to be a good battle all the way to the end. I don't see anyone stretching out a comfortable lead before we get to November.
"But we are four points ahead, so we're right in the middle of this thing," he added.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
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