CLICK: Full race results and Nationwide Series championship standings.
By rights, it should have been Brad Keselowski celebrating in victory lane at the end of the NASCAR Nationwide Series John R Elliott HERO Campaign 300 night race at Kentucky Speedway on Friday night. He'd dominated the race and led for 138 of the 200 laps only to fall foul of a speeding penalty which meant that he could only watch on as Kevin Harvick out-dragged Kyle Busch at the final restart and pulled away for the win.
“We had a great day going and I got us behind there with a pit road speeding penalty. I just made a little mistake, but the Discount Tire team did a great job,” said Keselowski. "I did put us behind with that, but you still have to give credit to Kevin at the end there. He drove by and took the lead, so he was really good."
Declaring that it had been "a very strange night", Harvick gave the credit to the win to his team and crew chief Ernie Cope for engineering the car that he needed to make it to the chequered flag.
"In the beginning our car wasn't that bad, we needed some adjustments, had some things happen on some pit stops, so we pitted and put four tyres on and everything kind of fell our way," he explained. "We were able to get a little bit of a tyre advantage there at the end and Ernie made a really good adjustment to the race car that allowed us to really take off and run the best we had all night."
Keselowski had earlier beaten Busch to pole position by 0.188s to claim his 15th pole in 209 Nationwide starts, and the #22 Penske duly led for the first 43 races through to the first caution for debris on the backstretch. After pit stops, Paul Menard briefly took the lead at the restart before Keselowski once again took charge all the way to the second debris caution of the night on lap 82, which was notable for Ryan Sieg turning Jeremy Clements under yellow by way of retribution for what be mistakenly believed had been light contact from the #51 that had caused him to spin the lap before. That earned Sieg and his crew chief a mandatory invitation to visit the NASCAR hauler after the race.
Nationwide Series regulars Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith took to the front with two-tyre strategies, but Keselowski wasted no time in getting past them to pick up where he'd left off. The race had just reached the halfway point when Matt Kenseth spun out of fifth place to bring out the third caution of the night, and while Keselowski and Busch stayed out and duly led the field to the green flag there was a setback for Harvick after a pit road miscommunication dropped him to 18th place. That only seemed to spur him on, however, and over the course of the next stint he quickly worked his way back into the top ten and picked up the lead of the race on lap 149 when Keselowski came in under green for his final pit stop of the night.
It was the pit stop that decided the race, with Keselowski getting hit with a drive-thru for a speeding penalty that wrecked his hitherto flawless evening and made his 3.8s lead a distant memory. Seconds later the problem was compounded by a caution for debris in turn 3 on lap 146 which meant that Harvick and the others who had yet to make their final stop could now do so under yellow. Having pitted just before the caution, Kyle Busch stayed out to assume the lead ahead of Paul Menard and Ryan Blaney, but Harvick was now up to fourth place on slightly fresher tyres and a full tank of gas having won the battle off pit road over Trevor Bayne. Keselowski meanwhile was forced to take the wavearound to get back on the lead lap, and now found himself trailing in 17th position with only 40 laps remaining to make his recovery.
Keselowski made an early declaration of intent with a banzai move to pick up three positions immediately after the restart, while at the front Busch was able to hold a half second lead from Harvick who had quickly found his way past Menard and Blaney. Keselowski had already managed to make his way back up to seventh place when the fifth caution of the night came out for championship leader Regan Smith hitting the wall on lap 170 after contact with the #16 of Ryan Reed on the backstretch.
Harvick almost managed to get the nose of the #5 ahead before the restart was curtailed by a new accident, this time for Dakoda Armstrong spinning into the wall between turns three and four with 25 laps to go. Harvick has another go when the green flag came out on lap 180 but Busch was just able to hold him off and eke out a small lead of around a second, while all the time Keselowski was working his way forward and had reached fourth place behind Paul Menard when the battle between Trevor Bayne and Chase Elliott over ninth place ended with the #6 being knocked into contact with the outside wall in turn 4 to trigger the final caution of the race on lap 192.
"Week after week I'm getting used up by people, it's frustrating as can be," fumed Bayne after the finish. "Chase is a great kid and a great driver, but it's the same old story. They get to my inside and just run me up the race track, packing air on their doors and wreck us. We've got the bad end of the deal three weeks in a row and I don't know what it takes to get respect around here.
"I feel like I've always raced pretty hard, but clean when I needed to, and I give respect to the people that give it to me," he added, after finishing the race in 15th place. "I haven't had an issue with the #9 before, but today you get to them and they race you semi-crazy and it goes both ways. Hopefully it stops soon and we can race, and we can get our cars a little better so we don't have to worry about those guys."
That set up a final five-lap shootout to decide the winner. Busch took point but had a poor restart which allowed Harvick to finally assume the lead - despite complaining that his car was too tight and declaring that "The yellows killed us." Meanwhile Keselowski's hopes of giving chase were thwarted by Busch who was determined not to yield any further ground, while behind the pair Menard held station to benefit from any opportunities that presented themselves.
Keselowski did finally win his thrilling duel with Busch for second place - leaving Busch pulling out all the stops to prevent Menard from now picking up third place - but it was too late for the Penske driver to be able to do anything about Harvick's lead, and when the chequered flag dropped it was the #5 showing off what it could do in terms of burnouts as Harvick clinched his 42nd victory in 309 NASCAR Nationwide Series races, his second at Kentucky and also his second win of the season.
"Kevin just had enough opportunity on the restart," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., team owner of the #5 JR Motorsports car. "I was real surprised it worked out. We're having a lot of fun winning some races and it's definitely going to benefit our company in the long run and I can't thank Kevin enough for coming to be a part of it."
In the NASCAR Nationwide championship standings, finishing in 28th place on Friday after his accident means that Regan Smith loses the lead and drops to third position, with Elliott Sadler now taking a four point lead over Chase Elliott. In the owners' championship, the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing car still has a 48 point lead over the #22 Penske.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.