It proved to be a dramatic and nail-biting finish to the 2012 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series under the floodlights at Homestead-Miami on Friday evening, when it looked as though the title might be slipping out of James Buescher's fingers in the final laps as his rival Ty Dillon surged toward the front with two laps to go.
Buescher came into the race with an 11 point lead over Timothy Peters in the championship battle, and an even dozen over Ty Dillon - but it was clear from early on that it was the young rookie that Buescher had to worry about, while Peters' only hope was to be in the right place to pick up the pieces if anything went wrong with both of his rivals.
Buescher wasn't exactly looking at the top of his game at Homestead either, qualifying for the race in 17th place while Peters and Dillon were firmly in the top ten in sixth and seventh positions respectively. Pole had gone to Parker Kligerman, but only thanks to a car owner points tie-break with Kyle Larson who set exactly the same laptime (31.986s, 168.824mph) in the speed trials earlier in the day.
In the end, Kligerman only led for the first laps before being usurped by Nelson Piquet Jr. who stayed out in front for the remainder of a relatively uneventful opening stint that lasted until a debris caution on lap 37 brought everyone onto pit road. Kyle Busch emerged as the leader after the pit stops, but a second debris caution on lap 45 after Bryan Silas hit the wall in turn 4 saw Kyle Larson make a move at the ensuing restart on both Busch and Kligerman to take over at the front.
With the exception of some laps during which a sequence of green flag pit stops cycled through, Larson continued to control the race through to the next caution - again for debris - on lap 105. That was a blessing for Buescher, who after climbing as high as eighth at one point had now begun to fall back and was running in 12th place, the last car on the lead lap when the yellow flags came out.
Johnny Sauter took over the lead in the ensuing final round of pit stops under caution, but at the restart it was clearly Kyle Busch with the car to beat as he leapt away at the front from Larson, Matt Crafton, Sauter - and Ty Dillon. Buescher continued to circulated around in 12th place, which was enough to cover the threat from the youngster for the time being: from that position, Dillon would have to win the race outright to overhaul Buescher's points lead.
Buescher had strengthened his hand a little by climbing to 11th place with ten laps to go when the fourth caution of the day came out for a spin in turn 3 for Max Gresham. That closed up the field at the front and gave Ty Dillon the opportunity that he had been hoping for to surge to the front, and when the track went green that's exactly what he attempted by leaping up into second place. But Kyle Busch was still too fast and in control of the race, and that left Dillon one point shy of Buescher in the standings. He needed more.
And what Dillon emphatically didn't need was a challenge from Kyle Larson that could cost him his hard fought second spot. With two laps remaining, Larson made a spirited dive-bomb move for the position. Believing that he was clear of Larson's truck, Dillon made the decision to move down the track to thwart the counterattack, but it proved a costly call: the two made contact and wrecked, and in the process took out the innocent bystander of Ryan Blaney whose #29 erupted in a scary ball of fire from the violence of the ensuing impact with the outside wall.
“I'm all right,” said Blaney afterwards. "Just knocked the wind out of me there. It's one of the worst hits when you clipped like that."
The race was red flagged in order to attend to Blaney and to clear up the mess. Dillon headed to pit lane for repairs, and even though he returned to the track for the green-white-chequered restart he was off the lead lap and no longer able to do anything about Buescher winning the title.
"I'm all right with everything that played out," Dillon insisted despite the obvious disappointment of the moment. "It's just we were going for it and almost had it. We were trying to hit the home run in the bottom of the ninth and almost did it. It bounced off the wall.
"But that's all right," he said again, resisting the temptation to stir conspiracy theories by pointing out that Larson is Buescher's team mate at Turner Motorsports. "We'll be back next year, and we'll be fighting harder than ever, and we'll be hoisting that trophy next year.”
“It's tough that I got into a contender, but I'm racing for the win, also,” said Larson of what happened from his own point of view. "I kind of felt like I had position getting into the corner. I was down to the apron. I think it was hard racing. It sucks I took out Ty, but I guess it's just hard racing."
Later, after watching the video of the incident, Larson added on Twitter: "Feel REALLY bad for [Dillon]. I definitely would never wreck someone on purpose. I just drove over my head." He also refuted suggestions that he'd run into Dillon on purpose on team orders. "Would never do that to help a teammate out. Can't really express how bad I feel about it all," he tweeted.
With the title effectively decided, that only left the race win to sort out: and after the exit from the front of the field of Dillon, Larson and Blaney, it came down to a showdown duel between Kyle Busch and Cale Gale. Gale had the advantage of fresh tyres, while Busch had used up his five sets for the race and had to make do with older rubber for the green-white-chequered overtime finish.
Gale made his superior grip and speed count, and heading into turn 3 on the final lap he managed to get underneath the #18 through the final turn and onto the frontstretch for the run to the finish line. Gale held nothing back and did everything he could to pin Busch to the outside wall to prevent him from coming back, and the two made contact as they crossed the line with just 0.014s between them.
"I got drove into the fence," complained Busch afterwards, with some justification. "That's it. You saw it." It won't help Busch find a new sponsor to replace retail chain Dollar General, who are not renewing their deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports for 2013.
But the race winner was making no apologies for how he'd won his maiden Truck Series victory at Homestead-Miami: "Kyle's a racer," said Gale. "He's been in the same position I've been in. We've all seen hungry racers get an opportunity and take it. That's what you have to do in this sport."
He admitted that Busch had cause for payback against him down the line, but right now it didn't matter. "He owes me, but I saw the chequers in the final race, that's all I can say," Gale shrugged. "A guy like me, it's my first opportunity to come down for the chequered flag in a NASCAR race.
"I can tell you right now coming off four that's not my driving style, but it's my first chance to taste NASCAR victory lane, and I know it's Kyle Busch, and I don't get opportunities like this very often.
"I had to take it while I could," the 27-year-old from Mobile, South Alabama added. "I knew that if I could pinch him a little bit, I could get the advantage, and pretty much that's [all] I was thinking at that point ... It's just a dream come true for all of us."
Joey Coulter finished third behind this excitement ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr. and Miguel Paludo. With Dillon out of the picture and Timothy Peters only running in eighth place at the finish, Buescher was able to take his foot off the gas and cruise to the title by ending the Ford EcoBoost 200 in 13th place.
"It was close. Ty was giving us a run for it ... I just about went in the fence myself, but I held it together and everything came our way," said Buescher afterwards.
"It wasn't pretty," he admitted. "It was a little messy, but we did it." And no matter how the final race had played out, it didn't take the shine off the 22-year-old Texan's thrill of being the new Truck Series champion: "This is definitely the coolest thing I've ever done in racing," he said.
For his part, Peters was resigned to missing out on the title this year and already setting his sights on 2013. ""You have to lose one of these to win one. We lost it, so next year hopefully we're on the other side of the spectrum."
In the end, Buescher's margin of victory in the championship was just six points over Peters who finished as the runner-up. Coulter's strong finish at Homestead means he leapfrogs Ty Dillon for third place in the final standings, with Kligerman and Crafton rounding out the top six in the points ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr.
And with that, the Truck Series vehicles were being loaded back onto the haulers, their work for the year over and done, and not due back in competition again for another three months - when the 2013 season will get underway at Daytona International Speedway in February.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
speeds and full Truck Series championship standings