Kevin Harvick won Saturday night's O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge under the floodlights at the 1.5-mile Tesas Motor Speedway, having led for 127 of the 200 laps of the race.
Polesitter Kyle Busch had been his only real competition over the first half of the race, but once the track cooled in the night air the edge that the #33 held over the #54 grew increasingly large, leaving the winner of the event in little doubt as the chequered flag loomed.
"I didn't want to make a big mistake and give up a big chunk of time there," said Harvick of the final run to the finish. ""But it all timed itself out pretty good, and everything worked out."
Busch had led the field to the green flag at the start of the final Nationwide Series night race of the 2012 season and immediately pulled away at the front, with Elliott Sadler slipping into second spot ahead of Harvick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who were duelling over third place.
A caution on lap 13 came out for Hal Martin sliding up into the wall at turn 2. The leaders stayed out, although Stenhouse was controversially cited for not maintaining a consistent speed when he pulled a 'fake out' toward pit lane. He was docked a position before the restart on lap 18, which immediately saw Busch check out again at the front, only for his tyres to start to go off after 30 laps which allowed Kevin Harvick to start to reel him back in again.
Austin Dillon had come in for a pit stop just a lap before the second caution of the day came out on lap 45 for debris. That allowed the rest of the field to come in for a service under yellow, forcing Dillon to stay out and take the wavearound to the back of the lead lap in 26th place. There were no other position changes at the front, and so Busch led the restart on lap 49 ahead of Harvick, Joey Logano and Sadler, with Cole Whitt ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The handling of the #54 was starting to get uncomfortably loose for Busch on this latest set of scuffed tyres in the cooling evening conditions, and on lap 65 he was passed on the high side by Kevin Harvick. Busch was subsequently also passed by Sadler and Whitt and was doubtless happy to see the yellow flags come out on lap 83 for a brush with the wall in turn 2 for Jason Bowles, a caution that allowed the leaders to come back to pit road and Busch's team to attempt some set-up changes to counteract the drop in the #54's performance.
Harvick led Busch at the restart on lap 90. Busch immediately made a play around the outside of Harvick for the lead, but he bottomed out over the bumpy Texas Motor Speedway surface and came dangerously close to sailing up into the wall. That released Harvick at the front, with Sadler in close pursuit in second as Busch had to go three-wide with Whitt and Logano to salvage third.
A lengthy green flag period allowed the true running order to evolve: Sadler's car started to fade and he dropped down to fourth behind Busch, while Logano moved up to second behind Harvick. As the race approached two-thirds race distance, Danica Patrick was having a good run and was up to sixth, just behind Sam Hornish Jr. who'd had a calamitous Keystone Kops pit stop under the previous caution to drop to 23rd spot but who was now right back into contention. Brian Scott was in seventh ahead of Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse, who was struggling with an ill-handling #6 and had dropped to the back of the top ten along with Cole Whitt.
After 42 green flag laps, the tyre wear was starting to show and Cole Whitt and Danica Patrick were the first to decide on earlier pit stops than planned rather than risk a blow-out. Denny Hamlin was also in early, while the other leaders were keen to stay out in order to make this a one-stop race. Finally on laps 143 and 144 there was a flood of cars onto pit road, and after the sequence concluded it was Harvick and Logano back in charge and a full four seconds ahead of Kyle Busch, while Danica Patrick's early switch to fresh rubber had boosted her to fourth place ahead of Sadler and Hornish with a little over 50 laps to run.
A turn 3 spin for Joey Gase as he was running side-by-side with John Blankenship on lap 155 brought out the fourth caution of the night, and the leaders were all making a quick return to pit road with an eye to making a long run to the finish. Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon all stayed out while Ryan Newman pitted for fuel only putting him back out in fifth and demoting Harvick to sixth place ahead of Logano, Busch and Scott, with Sadler rounding out the top ten.
The race restarted on lap 159 and within three laps Harvick was blasting past Hamlin for the lead, with Kyle Busch in hot pursuit. It took the rest of the field another ten laps to follow them through, but by lap 170 Hamlin was back down to sixth having now also been passed by Hornish, Logano and Stenhouse.
A fifth caution on lap 176 for Joe Nemechek brushing the wall in turns 3 and 4 signalled that it was time for the other shoe to drop on the pit stop front: now it was the turn of Hamlin, Blaney and the others that had stayed out under the previous caution to come in for fuel and tyres, giving them the upper hand in terms of grip over the leaders but at the cost of track position with 19 laps to go at the restart.
Harvick and Buch went side-by-side for the lead, but it was soon clear that Harvick had the upper hand and he soon disappeared into the distance. Ryan Blaney emerged as the chief challenger among those who had just taken on fresh tyres and he breezed passed Busch with seven laps to go, but by then Harvick had already achieved a safe margin and he was able to finish 1.628s up the road from the 18-year-old at the chequered flag with Busch cruising home behind them in third place.
Busch had some glowing words of praise for Blaney afterwards: ""He's really showing what he can do," he said. "He's done a good job of doing it and being clean while doing it. He's got a lot respect for everybody out there, and he can finish top two, three, four, five week in, week out, and he does it without making a big deal out of it."
"I've been a fan of Kyle for a very long time and he's definitely one of the people that I look up to," responded Blaney, for whom second is a Nationwide Series career best. "As a rookie and a young kid when you see your idols congratulate you, that's pretty cool!"
Two of the other drivers on fresh tyres ended up having a fierce spat between themselves: Denny Hamlin was running low on the apron but still felt he was being aggressively crowded by Austin Dillon, and finally he'd had enough and let the #3 car know it with a hefty bump retaliation at the end of the race. That led to a pit lane confrontation between Hamlin and the ever-feisty Richard Childress Racing pit crew supporting the team owner's grandson: Hamlin wasn't cowed, and certainly wasn't backing down in his criticism of the youngster's immaturity, as he saw it.
With the matter of the race win settled, the focus of attention at the end of the race turned to two cars who were far apart on the track, but locked together in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler, who were having starkly contrasting fortunes in the final laps of the night.
Stenhouse had been battling his car all evening, but finally with his last set of tyres and a boatload of drastic set-up changes he found enough in the #6 to push and slide his way up into fourth place.
"I didn't think we would get it back to a top-five car," Stenhouse admitted afterwards. "It was okay to start and then it went really bad. The guys did a great job steadily working on the car. We couldn't have great pit stops because they had to do so many adjustments. We were a little better at the end and restarted 11th with 25 to go or whatever it was and we got up into the top-five and it drove a little better."
At the same time, Elliott Sadler - Stenhouse's main rival in the title battle - had been left grappling with a #2 car that was almost impossible to control, and he soon found himself passed by car after car until he was ejected from the top ten. He finally crossed the finish line in 11th place. In terms of the title standings, that meant Stenhouse had gained six points on Sadler in the championship battle - putting them into a tie, although Stenhouse has the most wins in 2012 and therefore takes the de facto
lead of the championship with two races remaining.
"It doesn't really matter now: we have to be leading after Homestead, that is still our goal and still what we have our eye on," insisted Stenhouse. "We have gained some points the last two weeks which is good and you saw last year that if you tie it go.
"Phoenix is a great race track for [Sadler]," he added. "I think he won there and last time we were there we finished third. Homestead is a great race track for both of us as well."
But one thing was certain in Stenhouse's mind, if he is to have a shot at retaining his Nationwide championship before stepping up full time to Sprint Cup racing in 2013: "It is going to take a better race car than what we had today. We aren't going to be able to comeback like that every week. That is two in a row we have done that."
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