Things seemed bleak for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. soon after the mid-point of Saturday's Kansas Lottery 300 Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway, when a collision with Joey Logano sent him onto pit road for costly repairs that put him two laps off the lead.
With his main rival Elliott Sadler looking set for a top five finish, it looked like being a damaging outing for Stenhouse in terms of his hopes of retaining the Nationwide championship before moving up to Sprint Cup full time in 2013 with Roush Fenway replacing Matt Kenseth in the senior team.
There was nothing Stenhouse could do but to keep his cool, get his head down, and see if there was anything he could do to limit the damage. That perseverance netted first one wave-around and then a lucky dog pass to put him back onto the lead lap; then an opportunistic well-timed tyre-and-gas stop off the back of the latter gave him the chance to take advantage of others' fuel misfortune to pull off the ultimate in damage control - an outright race win.
"I didn't see the win coming like this but we will take it," said a delighted Stenhouse in victory lane. "It was in front of a great crowd. I can't say enough about the fans coming out and supporting us. It is a lot of fun to run in this series and especially to come to Kansas."
At the start of the race, Logano has easily converted pole position into an early lead, with his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Brian Scott following him through and tucking into second place ahead of Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler. But it was to be a spin-prone race for Scott, who was responsible for three of the first five cautions, the first coming on lap 14 when the #11 got loose in turn 4 and went skidding through the infield grass.
That caution saw the field start to break up into an array of differing pit strategies for the afternoon, as Stenhouse and Danica Patrick took the opportunity to pit early. Most cars waited until the next caution that came on lap 31 when Australian Scott Saunders spun in turn 3 and put the rear of the #08 into the outside wall.
Stenhouse stayed out this time and duly took point for the restart ahead of Paul Menard, Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick, with Logano dropping back to ninth place for the restart; but Menard got the better start and took the lead for the first of what would prove to be 110 laps in the lead in the 200-lap race.
There was a stop-go feel to the following laps, as Scott went for his second spin on 41, and then on lap 49 it was Dexter Stacy loosing the rear end of his car and then backing into the wall to bring out the fourth caution. Just five laps of green flag running later and Scott had his third and final spin of the day on lap 58, this time doing enough damage to the #11 on the outside wall to send him to the garage area.
Stenhouse stayed out while others pitted to take the lead at the restart ahead of Kenny Wallace, Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick and Justin Allgaier. Further back, Scott Lagasse Jr. pulled off the save of the afternoon as he caught a vicious spin to the left out of turn 4, which nearly caught out Elliott Sadler and did result in Kyle Busch scraping the outside wall to avoid what had looked to be a seemingly inevitable accident.
A new caution was out on lap 60 when Nationwide new boy Nur Ali spun in turns 3 and 4 and crumpled the rear of the #41 against the wall. This time there was a more concerted move to pit road, with Stenhouse taking a long time getting four tyres which put him down into 20th. Kyle Busch also needed extra time in the pits to allow his crew to sort out the damage from that scrape against the wall. Sadler was also delayed as his pit crew looked into worsening rear grip issues on the #2. That put Paul Menard back into the lead at the restart on lap 73, with Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon soon duking it out for second place ahead of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick.
Despite Jason Bowles hitting the wall hard in turns 1 and 2 on lap 82, the longest green flag run of the day so far meant that drivers who had opted not to pit under the most recent cautions had to come in under green around the midway point of the race: Danica Patrick came in from sixth place on lap 96 while Allgaier came in at the halfway point of the race and Sam Hornish Jr. was in next time by, all of them going off the lead lap as a result. All of them would be badly caught out by the seventh caution of the day on lap 112 which was the result of a blown tyre on the #70 of Johanna Long that sent her car into the wall at turn 4, just before Austin Dillon could mount a challenge Paul Menard for the lead.
Before that, the most significant incident of the afternoon had taken place between former race leaders Stenhouse and Logano. Stenhouse had worked his way back up into the top five thanks to a combination of assertive driving and others coming into pit: he was closing up on the back of Logano when his engine temperatures started to spike because of some debris on the front grille. He tried closing up on the back of the #18 to use the air turbulence off the back of the car in front to dislodge the debris, but Logano slowed unexpectedly and Stenhouse ended up sliding up too high and into the side of Logano's car instead, sending Logano into the outside wall.
"We had a lot of debris on the grille and we were 300 on water and oil and I thought we would have to pit to come get that off before we blew up," explained Stenhouse after the race. "I was trying to get behind him to get the debris off and he checked up at the last second and I turned and just drove right into the side of him ... That wasn't much [Logano] could do about it."
Logano was clearly unhappy: "I just got put in the fence. What are you going to do? That's a racing thing," he said. "It's just a little early in the race for fencing each other
"I know he's behind me trying to clean his grill off, so I didn't know what he's trying to do and then he got underneath me and started running me up the race track and then we ran out of real estate and he just 'smushed' us in the fence," he added. "I knew I was going to hit the wall because he ran me up so high. I think he just couldn't turn and when you get in that pocket — right here around the car there's a pocket of air and you really can't turn when you're there and I think he was right there."
Anytime that fate subsequently put Logano behind the #6 either on track or on pit road, he made sure to give Stenhouse as many nudges as he could without actually spinning him out. He made it clear after the race that he wasn't going to entirely let it drop in future, either: "I guess that's the way he's going to race, so we'll look for that in the future."
The two cars had both been forced to pit for repairs and gone off the lead lap before the caution for Long's blow-out came out: this was potentially disastrous for Stenhouse's Nationwide championship hopes, given that Sadler was still circulating well inside the top ten. All the young driver could do was get his head down and pick up any scraps that a damage control strategy presented him with.
Menard cleared Austin Dillon for the lead at the restart on lap 117 but the race was back under caution on lap 129 for clear pieces of debris in turn 4. This was good news at least for one of the cars a lap down, Sam Hornish, who claimed the lucky dog to return to the lead lap. Another caution on lap 138 was similarly good news for Danica Patrick, while other cars on the lead lap including Menard, Dillon, Busch and Sadler all came into pit road for tyres and fuel with an eye to running a fuel conservation strategy from here to the end of the race.
Menard retained the lead at the restart on lap 142, until a tenth caution - this one for debris in turn 3 - came out on lap 161. This was excellent news for Stenhouse, who had already reclaimed one of his laps by staying out during a previous round of pit stops and who now was in the lucky dog position to get back onto the lead lap in 17th place; even better, once that was done he still had time to come in, pit, and take a full load of gas and tyres. If the cars ahead started to hit problems with their fuel strategies then Stenhouse would be in prime position to benefit. Suddenly, that mid-race disaster was looking like he could at least finish within touching distance of Sadler and minimise the loss in championship points after all.
Menard secured the lead again at the restart on lap 166 ahead of Dillon, Whitt, Hornish and Busch, but those drivers who needed more cautions were relieved to see Mike Bliss get loose and go skimming over the grass infield on lap 171 to bring out the 11th caution - equalling the all-time record for yellows at Kansas. At the restart on lap 175, there was a rare poor getaway from Menard at the front that held back Hornish and Dillon and instead allowed Kyle Busch to claim the lead at the stripe.
The race threatened to go green to the finish, with Menard slowly reeling Busch back in and looking set to mount a final challenge to reclaim the top spot, when a 12th caution materialised with just three laps to do till the scheduled end of the race: Hal Martin and Scott Lagasse had squeezed together on the white line, collided and ended up wrecking up on the wall in turn 2.
"We were just racing hard at the end, trying to learn all I could out there," said Martin afterwards. "When I got underneath the #8, we got pinched down and lost the air off the right side and spun out."
By the time the debris was taken care of, the race was already in overtime and there would be a green-white-chequered finish - disastrous news for those cars already on a knife-edge when it came to fuel. Many of them accepted the reality of the situation and dived onto pit road for an emergency splash-and-dash - among them Dillon, Sadler and Patrick, putting them back into 12th, 14th and 15th position respectively.
Others tried toughing it out but then ran dry before the green flag could even come out for the restart attempt: Hornish crawled to a halt on the infield apron, while Kenny Wallace needed to be pushed round the track by his brother Mike after running dry. And all the time this was going on - delaying the GWC restart attempt - more time and laps were being added onto the race distance making it even more critical for the remaining drivers like Menard and Busch who hadn't stopped in over 60 laps. Meanwhile, Stenhouse was rising up the running order almost by the second, and took the restart in third place.
Third became second as the green flags waved: Menard put his foot down on the accelerator only to find that his tank was dry, and he had to drop down to the apron and watch on from the sidelines as the race ended. Busch initially seemed to have enough left in the tank, but then after the white flag on the final run down the backstretch the #54 started weaving frantically from side to side in the hopes of getting just a few more drops of gas into the fuel pick-up. But there were none to be had: Busch was also out of gas and could only coast the remaining distance to the line under what was left of his previous momentum.
"Ran out in the middle of three and four - but that's our year, man. Nothing else to it than that, you know," signed Busch, who has still to win in the series for his new Kyle Busch Motorsports outfit. "What a frustrating defeat. Oh well, you get defeated sometimes."
"I saw Kyle and he was really shaking it down the back straightaway trying to make sure it had a lot of fuel," described the man with the best seat in the house - Ricky Stenhouse, in the car right behind. "I thought it was good to go but right in the centre it ran out and I was able to sneak by him on the outside and get the win. That was exciting!"
Stenhouse was across the line first, followed by Austin Dillon and then by Joey Logano, who was still smarting from that mid-race collision with Stenhouse and who reminded the race winner about it with another firm impact on the rear-end of the #6 after the chequered flag. "That was just like a, 'Hey, good job,'" insisted Logano afterwards.
Not that Stenhouse much cared either way, he was too busy celebrating over the team radio and carrying out his victory burnouts: "I thought it ruined our day but we were able to bounce back from it," admitted Stenhouse about that mid-race clash, adding that all the credit for the car's recovery from that low-point to win the race went to the pit crew and in particular to crew chief Mike Kelly.
"I thought our day was done but Mike and the guys did a great job at repairing the right side of the car as best they could and making adjustments so that we could still run fast," said Stenhouse. "I thought we had a top five car still with all the damage. The cautions fell our way and Mike kept making great calls when we would come down pit road and we were able to get back on the lead lap.
"It put us in position where we were able to get fuel," he added. "We weren't worried about running out and that played into our favour for sure. I thought we were going to end up second and then Kyle ran out there at the end and it played right into our hand."
With so many cars ahead of him running dry at the end, Sadler was able to bounce back from his own late emergency pit stop to claim fourth place ahead of Cole Whitt and the coasting Kyle Busch. That means that Sadler retains his championship lead in the Nationwide standings, but has been trimmed back to just six points.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings