CLICK: Full race results and full Nationwide Series championship standings.
A clever fuel strategy by Roush Fenway Racing crew chief Scott Graves and perfect, composed execution by series rookie Chris Buescher put the 21-year-old into victory lane at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his first NASCAR Nationwide win in 30 race starts.
"Its incredible, just incredible," said Buescher, who led 25 laps in the race having only led five laps before this point in the whole season. "It's such an honour to be here ... It was just an amazing, amazing trip!"
And he admitted that it had been even closer on the fuel strategy than he had dared admit to his crew chief: "My fuel light came on near the end, but I wasn't telling Scott!"
"This is amazing. That is so cool to do that," said Graves. “We've been saying all year that we're here to win and to do that, you need to take risks. You need to get out front and make things happen, and we did that today."
Buescher was present near the front of the field for virtually the entire race, having qualified in fifth position during qualifying earlier in the day, but for the first two thirds of the 90-lap event it looked as though the race would be dominated by the more experienced drivers around him. Sam Hornish Jr. started from pole position for the seventh time in his 106-race Nationwide Series career after setting a time of 84.787s (95.873mph) on the 2.258-mile, 13-turn permanent road circuit, which had seen off road racing specialist Alex Tagliani for the top spot by three tenths of a second.
When the green flag came out, Tagliani had a poor start which allowed the Richard Childress Racing #2 driven by Brian Scott to get past both of the front row men on the first lap and claim the early lead. Tagliani soon picked up the pace and briefly moved past Hornish into second but then started to slide back, falling to fourth behind Chris Buescher by the time the first caution came out on lap 5 after Jeffrey Earnhardt locked up his brakes and flew off into the gravel trap at the high-speed turn 4.
Tagliani was soon moving in the right direction again after the green flag on lap 9, quickly dispatching Buescher for third and then taking advantage of Hornish getting loose and going into a slide on lap 10 to claim second place behind Scott. Further back, Regan Smith had settled into fifth place ahead of Ty Dillon who was experiencing mounting issues with his power steering, while several drivers including Elliott Sadler, Dylan Kwasniewski and Kenny Habul were concerned about rising water temperatures as off-track excursions clogged their front grille with grass. The worst hit by this was Justin Marks, who was forced onto pit road on lap 19 - ten laps earlier than planned - to have the grille cleared out, earning himself a drive-thru pit lane speeding penalty in the process.
Sadler was in on lap 25 for his own clean up (and incurring his own penalty in the process), a couple of laps before the pit stops started in earnest with Tagliani and Hornish coming in together. Tagliani was the latest driver to get penalised for speeding on exit, meaning that Scott and Smith were extra careful when they came in on the following lap. While they were in for service, a full course caution materialised after the front right tyre of James Buescher's car blew out and deposited the carcass on the racing line on lap 28.
Brian Scott and Sam Hornish took the green flag for the restart on lap 32 and Hornish was able to force his way through on the inside line to lead the race. Chris Buescher had held on to third through the disrupted round of the pit stops ahead of Brendan Gaughan, Regan Smith, Alex Tagliani, Chase Elliott and Trevor Bayne with Marks and Kwasniewski rounding out the top ten.
Scott wasn't taking the loss of the lead lying down and he fought back aggressively, making contact with Hornish on multiple occasions but fortunately without either car being sent flying. Gaughan wasn't so lucky when he got out of shape heading through turn 4 battling Chase Elliott, and the #62 went off into the gravel fortunately without hitting anyone in the process or getting beached in the process meaning there was no need for a caution.
Unfortunately that wasn't the case when Tommy Dressi spun off at turn 9 and ended up with the back of his car stuck in a tyre barrier which raised his rear tyres off the ground, leaving him unable to resume. A full course caution ensued, and when the green flag came out again on lap 45 it gave Scott the opportunity to mount a new and successful challenge on Hornish for the race lead. Hornish was then left struggling to stay ahead of Tagliani who had fought his way back up to third place ahead of Buescher and Smith, and it was clear that the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing car was noticeably down on power and struggling for handling; when the next caution came out on lap 51 for Kenny Habul's car pulling over onto the grass in a terminal condition, Hornish was soon coming down pit road and heading straight to the garage area with an apparent engine failure.
A mix of pit strategies saw Smith win the race off pit road ahead of Tagliani, Scott and Elliott, but nine cars stayed out and so it was Bayne, Kwasniewski, Marks and Gaughan who led the field to the green flag albeit on older tyres. That disparity was largely reset once the race reached lap 60 and everyone was in their fuel window to make it to the finish: those that had stayed out came in for their deferred stops while any of those that had just pitted came in for one last splash-and-dash to ensure they would reach the finish.
Gaughan stayed out longest despite a rapidly narrowing margin over Buescher, who claimed the lead on lap 66 when Gaughan finally pitted. Buescher was toughing it out on fuel, knowing he was a couple of laps short to last the full distance but pinning his hopes on a late caution to save his day and hoping that the rest of the field wouldn't catch him up in the meantime. He got his wish for a yellow on lap 71 when Jeff Green ploughed into the turn 5 tyre wall head-on after suffering a stuck throttle, but the downside for Buescher was that his margin over Smith, Tagliani, Scott, Sadler and Elliott had been wiped out in the process.
“It was nerve-wracking, I wasn't sure if I was happy or disappointed,” Buescher admitted of the caution. “I knew we had a little more fuel, but it bunched us all up there. This Ford Mustang was fast."
Another sluggish restart for Tagliani saw him bounce off the side of Scott's car and fall to sixth while Sadler took the opportunity to pass both of them and slot into third place behind Buescher and Smith. Sadler wasn't able to maintain that spot, problems with the transmission of the Joe Gibbs Racing #11 sending him off road and back down to sixth just behind Tagliani once more. That left Buescher with only one remaining major threat in the shape of Regan Smith over the final stint of the race, but the leader was able to calmly pull out a couple of seconds over the second-place man while all the time saving fuel. Only in the final laps did Smith try and turn up the pressure, but a broken exhaust limited his options and even when Buescher was held up by the lapped car of Tim Cowen he was unable to pounce.
"We broke the exhaust at some point, it started popping pretty bad at some point,” he said. “As the race went on, the popping got worse and it finally broke off that we didn't have any power off of the corners. Chris drove a great race and congratulations to him."
That left Buescher crossing the line to claim his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race win over a second ahead of Smith who was followed to the finish by Scott, Elliott and Tagliani. Justin Marks managed to get past the struggling Sadler in the closing laps, while Kwasniewski, Bayne and Dakoda Armstrong rounded out the top ten. Brendan Gaughan's attempt to find a different strategy ended with the #62 Richard Childress Racing having to dive into pit lane with skyrocketing water temperature problems that put him off the lead lap.
In the championship standings, Chase Elliott's lead has been trimmed back to ten points by Regan Smith, with Elliott Sadler a further six points back. Ty Dillon manages to hold on to fourth position over RCR team mate Brian Scott after battling his way to a 19th place finish at Mid-Ohio. In the owner standings, the #22 Penske car driven by Alex Tagliani has pulled out a 21 point advantage over the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing helmed by Sam Hornish Jr., which was classified in 30th place after its engine failure.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.