CLICK: Full race results and current Nationwide Series championship standings
With the Sprint Cup field busy at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania this weekend, the Nationwide Series regulars in Iowa must have felt pretty confident of being left alone to decide the winner of the US Cellular 250 between themselves. That is, until they learned that Brad Keselowski was flying across country to defend his 2013 race win in the night race under the floodlights at Iowa Speedway.
Not phased at all by his commute, Keselowski immediately put himself onto the front row for the race by qualifying just 0.019s behind Trevor Bayne who had successfully clinched his seventh pole in 138 NASCAR Nationwide Series races and his first of 2014 with a lap of 23.558s (133.713mph) on the 7/8ths of a mile short track.
Bayne led for the first 31 laps despite coming under side-by-side pressure from Keselowski as the two quickly started having to make their way around lapped traffic. A debris caution on lap 25 allowed Keselowski to get ahead at the restart, which he kept through to the next caution and first round of pit stops on lap 50 for the #17 of Tanner Berryhill losing power and stalling between turns 1 and 2. Elliott Sadler stayed out to pick up the lead at the green flag, but he quickly faded on old tyres and was passed first by Sam Hornish Jr. and then by Keselowski and Bayne returning to the front.
Nornish won the race off pit road under the next debris caution of the night on lap 108 and went on to lead for the next 50 laps ahead of Keselowski and Michael McDowell. Hornish seemed well in control until he got loose and went for a rare slide in turn 4 on lap 163 which broke his momentum and opened the door for Keselowski to blast past on the high side to retake the lead again. Keselowski kept the lead through the next caution and ensuing pit stops on lap 183 after Dakada Armstrong went for a harmless solo spin in turn 2, with Hornish, Bayne, McDowell, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott taking up the chase positions behind him at the green flag.
Keselowski initially maintained a steady state lead of around a second over the rest of the field, but as the stint wore on and lapped traffic became more problematic he was gradually reeled in again by Hornish. Meanwhile McDowell and the rest were dropped by more than four seconds and just 16 cars remained on the lead lap with under 20 laps to go. But just when it seemed that the victory was completely in hand for Keselowski who had started to build up his lead again, there was a fifth and final caution of the evening as James Buescher crashed on the frontstretch.
No one could afford to be caught on old tyres in a sprint finish, so all of the leaders came in for two-tyre stops; Hornish went for four which dropped him to seventh place. Keselowski won the race off pit road to lead the field to green with four laps remaining but McDowell gave it all he had to get past the Penske #22, even putting his nose ahead for the first lap before Keselowski finally managed to reassert his superiority and slam the door firmly shut on the Joe Gibbs Racing #20. With no further cautions to interrupt the flow, Keselowski pulled away and cruised across the line with 0.886s in hand to become a repeat winner of the Iowa Nationwide race.
"A really good battle," said Keselowski, who led a race-high 146 laps on his way to his 30th victory in 212 NASCAR Nationwide Series races. "He had me there for a minute. Somehow I slid back by him. I'm not really sure how it worked out.
"These wins aren't easy to come by and I'm really proud of the effort everyone put into it," he added. "Thankful that it came together."
"This is a great finish," enthused McDowell. "When you're that close to getting the victory, it's definitely a tough one. Brad definitely had the best car tonight, but on those restarts everybody's got a shot."
Trevor Bayne held on to third place from a charging Hornish, and in doing so won a special promotional Dash4Cash prize of $100,000. Ty Dillon claimed fifth place ahead of Regan Smith, Brian Scott and Chase Elliott.
"I feel like we did everything but go to Victory Lane this weekend," said Bayne, who will be promoted to being a Cup regular with Roush Fenway Racing in 2015. "Hopefully we can build on this."
In the Nationwide Series championship standings, Elliott maintains his lead for another week but now has just two points in hand over Smith, with Elliott Sadler and Ty Dillon tied for third a further eight points back. In the owner standings, Keselowski's win at Iowa brings the Penske #22 to within just a single point of the Joe Gibbs Racing #54 even though Sam Hornish Jr. finished in a strong fourth place this week.
See full race results and current Nationwide Series championship standings