Owen Kelly was able to celebrate a solid NASCAR Sprint Cup Series d?but outing on Sunday afternoon at Watkins Glen International, coming home on the lead lap in 24th place in the #51 Phoenix Racing car.

The Australian admitted that he'd gone for a safety-first strategy early in the race, but near the end had nearly been taken out by his compatriot Marcos Ambrose when the pre-race favourite spun out with six laps remaining. Kyle Busch went on to win the race ahead of Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.

"At the start, I was ultra-conservative, I really wanted to settle into a rhythm so that we could then work out what the strategy was going to be," he said after the end of the 90-lap race. "The car was too tight heading into the carousel and I was having trouble turning it. During the pitstop we made a change, but that didn't help too much.

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"On a few of the restarts I got hung out into turn one and lost a few positions and then had to fight to make them back up again," he added. "At one point, we were struggling with the front end and I looked into the mirror and Jeff Gordon was chasing me and pushing on my bumper to get by.

"I thought then, 'This is pretty cool, it's not every week you get pushed around by Jeff Gordon,'" he smiled. "That probably brought it home for me how big a deal this was. It was definitely the biggest race that I have ever been involved in."

It was at one of the late restarts that Kelly nearly got taken out by the spinning #9 Richard Petty Motorsport car. "I thought we'd probably end up about 15th overall, our pace was with those guys who were around there, but I lost a bunch of spots when Marcos crashed," he said.

"I could see him go around and was trying to avoid hitting him, but we just collected him on the way through. I reckon we lost about eight spots in jamming on the brakes to miss him," he continued. "It was eventful out there - when some were going around in front of you, I'd try to avoid them, then the guys behind would be in the back of you, it was relentless."

Kelly added that he's also been involved in some of the aftermath of Kasey Kahne's accident a couple of laps earlier.

"It was eventful out there. When some were going around in front of you, I'd try to avoid them, then the guys behind would be in the back of you, it was relentless," he said. "We came away with what we were looking for and that was to get through the race without damaging the car and finishing on the lead lap.

"Having come here on Friday never driven a NASCAR Sprint Cup car before, never driven Watkins Glen before, contending with rain during practice and everything else, to look back on qualifying to be the best of the non-regular runners and survive all of that which happened today was a huge achievement," he summed up. "I'm thankful to the guys from Phoenix Racing for the opportunity, we didn't get the result we were looking for in terms of position, but showed that we can be part of this deal."

Next weekend Kelly will be back in the slightly more familiar surroundings of the NASCAR Nationwide Series paddock, which will be visiting Mid Ohio Sports Car Course for the first time in its history.

"It will be a bit different, that's for sure," he said. "We'll have about 200 horsepower less than the car I was in today. I really can't wait to get back into the Monster Energy #54 next weekend, it should be another great weekend."

That's the same car that Kyle Busch was driving at Watkins Glen in Saturday afternoon's Nationwide Series race when he spun out of second place and got smashed in the front left by an unsighted competitor coming out of turn 1 on the first lap. Busch eventually rejoined the race but the car emphatically no longer in mint condition.

"I sat next to Kyle in the [Cup] driver's meeting today, and he said after yesterday that he wasn't sure what chassis we'd be using as that one is a bit banged up," aid Kelly. "[But] Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the leading teams in the Nationwide Series and will give me a good car to work with, I am confident of that."