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Smith steals Nationwide win at Daytona

Regan Smith managed to outrace Brad Keselowski to the finish line in the first race of the 2014 Nationwide Series championship at Daytona on Saturday.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings are available.

Regan Smith managed to make amends for a near-miss 12 months ago to claim victory in this year's season opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday afternoon, after just pipping Brad Keselowski to the line in a thrilling finish.

Smith and Keselowski had also been racing to the finish in 2013 when the two had made contact and triggered a huge wreck that had put Kyle Larson into the catchfence and allowed Tony Stewart to steal the win, but this time the drivers ensured there was no repeat of such mutually assured destruction as they crossed the line just 0.013s apart.

Qualifying on Friday afternoon had been interrupted by rain, which meant that instead of going through the new format of elimination rounds the starting grid had instead been set at the end of a single 25 minute group session. That has left 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski on pole, the first rookie to win in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut since Parker Kligerman did it at Kansas Speedway in 2009; Kwasniewski is the first rookie contender to post a pole at Daytona International Speedway in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut since NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace achieved it in 1985.

Unsurprisingly Kwasniewski quickly made way at the front following the green flag, ceding the lead to Friday night's Truck race winner Kyle Busch who was starting from fourth on the grid. With Elliott Sadler slipping into second place ahead of Matt Kenseth it made an all-Joe Gibbs Racing top three for the opening stint of the 120-lap DRIVE4COPD 300, which lasted to the first caution of the day for Harrison Rhodes' engine blowing up on lap 9. Most drivers took the opportunity to pit but Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie Dick stayed out to lead at the restart, while Matt Kenseth dropped to the back after being clipped on pit road by Chad Boat, the contact forcing him to come back on pit road for repairs.

The next round of pit stops which centred around lap 54 saw Busch restored to the front ahead of Ty Dillon and Sadler, while Earnhardt suffered from having to stop early by virtue of being off-sync and also from an issue with the front right tyre sticking, which together meant he was bumped down to the bottom of the top 20 for the next stint which lasted to lap 71 when an issue with the SAFER barrier in turn 2 triggered the second caution of the afternoon and allowed the drivers to make a quick return to pit road. Dillon's attempt to jump Busch for the lead with a no-tyre, fuel-only stopped backfired with a speeding penalty and when racing resumed Busch was still on control ahead of Sadler and Regan Smith.

Smith was promptly boosted to the lead by Brad Keselowski, although ironically it was James Buescher who was handed the first penalty for illegally push drafting Keselowski under the new 2014 regulations designed to stop the unpopular two-car tandem running. Buescher has just served his drive-thru penalty when a debris caution materialised on lap 93, but the top eight all decided to play the fuel conservation car and risked staying out, leaving Johnny Sauter the highest-placed driver to come onto pit road from ninth along with a small group that included Danica Patrick.

Smith, Busch, Sadler and Keselowski continued to lead at the restart which lasted a single lap before a new yellow for Ryan Sieg spinning out and narrowly avoiding collecting other cars along the way. The new caution was a help for those cars attempting to stretch their fuel, with racing resuming on lap 103 with 17 laps to go to the finish and it was Brad Keselowski who made a decisive move to the front with the help of some bump-drafting assistance from Trevor Bayne.

Contact between Eric McClure and Chad Boat in turn 3 on lap 116 sent both cars spinning and brought out a final yellow, setting up a green-white-chequered shootout. The top four locked together into a tight grid, leaders Keselowski and Smith doing everything they could to ensure that neither Bayne nor Busch had the freedom of movement to allow them to make a late move.

When it came to exiting the final corner it was clear that just as had been the case in the Truck race the night before, it was the high line that had the slingshot momentum and this allowed Smith to cross the line by 0.013s from Keselowski, the seventh closest all-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and the second closest in series history at the 2.5-mile speedway.

"They're all special in their own way and all have meanings that are different," said Smith who was celebrating his fourth victory in 137 Nationwide Series starts and his first at Daytona, but who already had one eye firmly on the long game of winning the 2014 title. "We've got a good group together and we've jelled early. Certainly a win helps us jell quicker."

Behind them Trevor Bayne similarly clinched Busch for third place, with Sadler finishing in fifth place ahead of Brendan Gaughan and Ty Dillon - along with Dylan Kwasniewski in eighth, the rookie polesitter doing commendably well to remain in the top ten for virtually the entire afternoon.

Further back, contact between Earnhardt and Kyle Larson after the chequered flag sent both cars flying and sparked a belated multi-car wreck that caught up Joe Nemechek, Ryan Reed and James Buescher; no one was hurt, and a contrite Earnhardt was able to join Regan Smith celebrating in victory lane in his capacity as the winning team owner of JR Motorsports.

Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings are available.



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