Joey Logano continued to display his impressive form in the Nationwide Series, with his eighth victory of the year in just 18 race starts in 2012 to put Joe Gibbs Racing back into victory lane once again.
Elliott Sadler had led the field to the green flag shortly before 8pm at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the race went under caution almost at once as Angela Cope crossed the starting line having already taken heavy front-end damage to her car, the front end buckled and leaking oil and water onto the track that required a lengthy clean-up before the race could get back underway.
The restart on lap 11 scarcely lasted any longer before going back under caution, this time as a result of Sam Hornish Jr. and Justin Allgaier making contact and slipping into the wall out of turn 4. Hornish put the blame on faulty information from his spotter telling him he was clear of Allgaier when he wasn't for initiating the incident.
"The spotter cleared me and I wasn't quite clear, obviously," he admitted. "He jumped on the radio as soon as it happened and said: 'Hey man, it's all my fault. I'm sorry.' Chris does a great job for me spotting on the Nationwide and the Cup side, this is the first incident where he's made a bad call.
"It's really tough for all of us on the Wurth Dodge and I feel really bad for Justin and his guys, too. It's a bummer. I'll forgive him and we'll move on," he added. "It's real unfortunate but when you're going the speeds that we're going whether it's the driver or the spotter, anybody makes a mistake it's usually pretty costly."
Indeed, both cars received sufficient damage to send them to the garage area and both took a long time to return. Allgaier finished the race 34 laps down and Hornish was 96 laps off the lead by the end.
Sadler had led these early laps, but once the racing resumed it was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who got the better start and surged into the front to claim the lead. Along with Kevin Harvick, the leading trio started to pull away from the rest of the pack as the race finally got some uninterrupted racing on the books. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano led the chase, but were unable to reel the leaders back in at this early stage.
Sadler tried to reclaim his lead on lap 36 but couldn't pull it off, instead opening up a window of opportunity for Kevin Harvick to have a go at the leader. After a back-and-forth tussle lasting over a period of ten laps, Harvick finally pulled it off and claimed the top spot on lap 51 just as the first round of pit stops were due.
Sadler had a slow pit stop and lost six spots, while Harvick resumed in the lead ahead of Stenhouse, Logano, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. But it was Brad Keselowski who was flying during this stage of the race, and on lap 72 he cruised past the #33 to claim control of the race.
A crash for Mike Bliss in turn 3 on lap 83 brought out the third caution of the evening and the leaders took the opportunity for a slightly calmer pit stop. That popped JGR team mates Hamlin and Logano to the front row for the restart ahead of Keselowski and Harvick. The green flag was once again short-lived, however, as this time it was Brad Sweet who went for a spin in turn 4 to bring out a rapid fourth caution.
Hamlin lost out badly at the next restart, losing the lead immediately to Logano and Keselowski and then also getting passed by Stenhouse and Sadler. Logano's turn in the lead didn't last long, however, and it was only four laps before Keselowski pounced and dived under the #20 for the lead out of turn 4. He looked ominously comfortable two seconds out in front for the next 25 laps, but then some debris clogged his front grille and the panic on the Penske pit wall rose in proportion to the skyrocketing water temperatures.
Keselowski's race was saved by a debris caution on lap 131 which allowed the field to pit under caution at that awkward tipping point where a fuel conservation run to the finish was just about possible, but not necessarily optimal. Keselowski's stop was slowed by the team making sure his front grille was well and truly cleared off, and so when the race went green again it was Logano in charge ahead of Sadler, Hamlin and Harvick.
Harvick worked his way up to second, and on lap 154 slid under Logano for the lead out of turn 4; Logano wasn't giving up though and continued to fight, the two having a fierce battle until finally Logano adjusted his racing line and reclaimed the lead on lap 162, with Brad Keselowski following him through past Harvick for second place.
"I didn't have an option," explained Logano of his decision to change his line. "I was getting beat, and I knew I had to do something. I moved to the top, and I was like: 'Hey, there's something here.' Just kind of had to adjust my style and get this little #20 car rocking."
It didn't seem that either Logano or Keselowski were particularly interested in the possibility of a fuel conservation approach: despite being at least five laps shy of making it to the end of the race on his current tank of gas, Logano was intent on building up a 1.5s lead over Keselowski before making his pit stop. The only question was exactly when he would come in: it turned out to be lap 186, 14 laps from the finish of the race. He unexpectedly took two new tyres as well as the splash-and-dash fuel, and headed on out - now it was a matter of seeing how everyone else's strategy played out.
Harvick, Stenhouse and Sadler were all in two laps later; and two laps later still, Keselowski committed to the pit lane entry as well. He had an impressively fast pit stop before he gunned the engine and left his pit box, but worryingly the team comms were filled with his crew chief Jeremy Bullins yelling "Wait! Wait! Wait!" as he pulled away.
The fast stop meant that Keselowski was back out onto the track in front of Logano. In the meantime, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Brian Scott had all briefly led before it was their turn to come in as well, but by lap 194 the stops had all cycled through and we could see how the cards had played out. And they had fallen badly for Keselowski.
It was clear that he really hadn't
been able to take on board enough gas to get him to the end. Logano was quickly past him, and on lap 196 Keselowski had the ignominy of being recalled to the pits by his team for more gas, a misstep that would cost him two laps and see him finish down in 18th place rather than competing for the win at the chequered flag.
"Just didn't have any gas there at the end and they won't run without that," he shrugged philosophically after the race. He revealed that the pit crew had intentionally been with less experienced team members: "We made sure none of the Cup guys were on this team tonight so there's no risk of them getting hurt," he explained. "We provided some opportunities to some other guys and some of them did great and obviously, we had some struggles in some other areas. That's what this program is about. We win and lose as a team."
"Just had a little bad luck there on that last pit stop and couldn't get the fuel in that we needed to get to the end there. It's a real tough break," said Keselowski's crew chief Jeremy Bullins. "I mean it's a lot of pressure but at the end of the day, it's what we're supposed to do. We just didn't do our job at the end there. Sorry to all the sponsors and fans that we didn't get the finish that we deserved. We'll keep running strong and get some more wins."
With Keselowski out of the running, the race was all Logano's: by the time he crossed the finish line, he was 2.76s ahead of Kevin Harvick, who admitted that in that final run he just hadn't had the car to beat Logano to the win.
"For us, as the night went on, our car got looser up off the corner, and the #20 seemed to get a little bit better," he said. "We just lost a little bit of pace there, but all in all, it was a good night for us."
Logano leaves JGR at the end of this season, having opted to accept a new Sprint Cup race seat at Penske Racing alongside Keselowski for 2013, and his current team will surely miss his contribution to their Nationwide operation next season.
"It was really cool to win a Dollar General race — that is one of our sponsors here at Joe Gibbs Racing. Cool to win that race for them," he said. "I still have a few more [opportunities] left," he added, hoping that this wouldn't prove to be the last time he would pilot a JGR car to victory lane in the Nationwide Series before the end of 2012.
He added that the Nationwide run on Friday was a definite help in figuring out his Saturday night Cup race strategy.
"I think when you run these Nationwide races, you always find something or at least reassure yourself on the kind of direction you're going — or the wrong direction you're going in practice," he explained. "I feel like we were going the right direction in Cup practice before we started this race. Everything kind of went as expected over here — the way the track changed and moving around and doing things.
"I think I found a couple little things," he added. "I can't tell you, because then I would have to kill you, so I don't want to do that for your sake! I think it's definitely a help to run these things. Plus, it's a whole heap of fun."
Logano's current Cup team mates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin finished this week's Nationwide race in fourth and fifth place, although Busch was driving for his own Nationwide team - Kyle Busch Motorsports - rather than for JGR on Friday.
With Logano and Harvick not competing in the Nationwide Series championship, Elliott Sadler was the leading points scorer at the end of the race, and by coming home in third place he extends his slender lead in the standings to 13pts over Stenhouse, who in turn now has 16pts over Austin Dillon in third place.
With only four races remaining in the championship, Sam Hornish Jr. might not be mathematically out of the running for the title after his early accident at Charlotte, but at nearly a hundred points off the lead his chances are certainly very slender.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings