CLICK: Full race results, qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings
Brad Keselowski was firmly in the groove at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Saturday whether it was in the Sprint Cup or Nationwide car, as he topped every session going at the one-mile oval culminating in his 29th victory in 211 NASCAR Nationwide Series races and his second of 2014.
He started the Sta-Green 200 Nationwide race from pole position after pipping Kyle Busch to the top spot by 0.083s in qualifying earlier on Saturday afternoon. All did not go according to plan however and quickly lost the lead to Busch going through the first corner. An early caution came five laps in when Trevor Bayne spun after contact with Dylan Kwasniewski left him with a cut left-rear tyre. That gave Keselowski a second chance to out-do Busch at the restart, but once again the #54 had the upper hand and Keselowski slotted back into second ahead of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth.
Keselowski was mounting a new attempt to get past Busch as a second caution came out on lap 12 when Josh Wise lost engine power and came to a halt on the backstretch. Busch continued to lead at the restart with Kenseth moving up to third behind Keselowski, and the battle for fourth between Larson and Elliott was joined by Paul Menard. This time there was an extended period of green flag running and that proved to suit Keselowski much better than it did Busch; when the #54 got held up by traffic on lap 34, Keselowski seized the moment and finally claimed the lead, quickly scampering down the road well ahead of his rival. The die was well and truly cast for the rest of the afternoon.
The race was still green when it came to the first round of pit stops around lap 80, with the leaders unchanged afterwards although Chase Elliott dropped out of the top ten after running dry before he could reach his pit stall. A caution for debris in turn 1 on lap 92 didn't entice the leaders back onto pit road but did wipe out Keselowski's lead for the restart - not that Busch could do anything with the opportunity as the #54 was suddenly now "wrecking loose" and as a result quickly fell back to fifth position at the green flag.
Busch was probably as relieved as anyone to see a new caution on lap 102 for debris as a result of Menard hitting the wall after jostling for position with Chase Elliott. Menard needed repairs on pit road, and Busch was in too in order to get some help with his handling issues which meant he took the restart on lap 107 down in eighth place. However it was barely half a lap before the caution was out for a multi-car accident triggered when Brian Scott dived for a gap that suddenly was no longer there; as he tried to pull back he tapped Elliott Sadler into a spin and that ignited a knock-on series of collisions as the chasing pack tried to avoid the #11; among those with damage were James Buescher, Dakoda Armstrong, Carlos Contreras and Austin Theriault, along with Sadler, Scott and Menard.
Larson had managed to get his nose in front of Keselowski in the few seconds of green flag running and duly led the field to the green flag on lap 113. He successfully maintained the lead as Keselowski made sure he wasn't passed by Kenseth or a now-happier Kyle Busch back up into fourth ahead of Regan Smith who was the highest of the Nationwide Series regulars at this stage of the race. Once things settled down, Keselowski was quickly able to reclaim the lead on lap 119 and it wasn't long before Busch had resumed the hunt again in second place, leaving Kenseth and Larson to sort out the matter of third place between themselves.
A debris caution on lap 139 short-circuited any divergent fuel strategies, with everyone able to pit and get enough gas to make it to the finish from here. Keselowski narrowly beat Busch in the race off pit lane followed by Kenseth, Scott, Larson, Ryan Reed, Sadler and Smith who had opted for a slow four-tyre stop. Chris Buescher stayed out to take the lead but he was quickly dispatched by the leaders once the green flag came out, although he was able to hold on to fifth place despite older tyres and working hard to save gas.
While everyone could make it on fuel, there were concerns from teams - notably Joe Gibbs Racing for the #54 - about tyre wear being an Achilles heel. There were no such concerns for Keselowski and as a result he was able to comfortably hold on to the lead all the way to the chequered flag. The only last minute concern came when the lack of cautions in the final 60 laps meant that several cars on extreme fuel-saving started to run dry and limp back toward the pits, but all involved kept their cars low and thereby averted the need for a last-minute caution that might have left Keselowski vulnerable to getting jumped in a green-white-chequered restart.
"This is really satisfying," said Keselowski as he celebrated in victory lane. "This team has deserved to win a few races and things just haven't quite gone their way and it is nice to put it together here at Loudon with a strong car and great team.
"Loudon is one of my favourite places to go race," he added. "That is why I am running the Nationwide race here. I really enjoy being out here. I want to thank the fans for coming out and we hope to see you tomorrow [for the Sprint Cup race] and hopefully we can do the same thing."
Almost the only thing that slipped through Keselowski's fingers all day on Saturday was the US flag when it was thrown to him from the flag stand: "It was really windy and my hand has been really sore," he explained, somewhat embarrassed. "I couldn't really hold the steering wheel and I took my hand off the flag for a second and the wind just ripped it right out. It is not one of my prouder moments."
Keselowski is still recovering from slicing his hand open on a shattered champagne bottle in post-race celebrations at Kentucky Speedway two weeks ago, which required four stitches. "It is better but not perfect but we will get there," he reported.
Regan Smith won a bonus $100,000 as a result of winning the Nationwide Insurance Dash 4 Cash play-off. In the championship standings, the top seven remain unchanged with Smith now holding an eight point lead over Elliott Sadler. A successful gambit meant that Chris Buescher moved up to eighth position in the standings ahead of his cousin James. In the owners standings, the #54 JGR car now has a 33 points lead over the #22 Penske.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.