CLICK: Full race results and full Nationwide Series championship standings.
If the number of cautions and accidents in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway is anything to go by, then this weekend's Sprint Cup race could well seal the fate of several of the dozen drivers left in this year's Chase for the championship title. And if the results of the Kansas Lottery 300 are anything to go by, then Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick could be in for very strong showings on Sunday.
For Busch in particular, Saturday's second-tier event demonstrated that 'Rowdy' can indeed be patient and bide his time when he needs to. Instead of storming to the front as soon as possible and dominating from there on, Busch instead didn't take point until well past the midway point of the 200-lap race and even then led for only 34 laps, compared with 37 for Elliott Sadler and 47 for Kevin Harvick who had looked on course for the win after risking an early switch to a fuel conservation strategy.
The first leader of the race was Ty Dillon, who had earlier claimed pole position with a lap of 29.357s (183.943mph), his third Nationwide pole of the year. Ryan Blaney started alongside him having been pipped to the top spot by a mere 0.041s in the final top-12 shoot-out, after the previous round had seen two red flag stoppages following crashes for John Wes Townley and championship contender Regan Smith which put both men in backup cars and at the back of the grid for the green flag.
Dillon held on to the initial lead with Kevin Harvick and Chris Buescher quickly pushing past Blaney to pick up second and third places before Milka Duno lost the back end of the #29 and hit the wall in turn 2 just two laps into her first Nationwide race to bring out the first of what would be many cautions. The restart allowed Buescher to pass Dillon for the lead, before Townley went around in turn 2 to trigger a rapid second yellow, as Kevin Swindell moved up to avoid the spinning #25 only to clip Matt DiBenedetto into a spin of his own.
Harvick took the initiative and the lead at the restart before a third rapid caution, this time for David Starr grazing the wall after contact from Jeffrey Earnhardt. The field took the chance to pit under this caution, with Townley foregoing taking fresh tyres to lead the field to green on lap 27; he was soon wept aside by Blaney, Buescher and Dillon, while Harvick was further back behind Kyle Busch after a protracted pit stop had cost him track position.
Finally there was a chance for a slightly longer green flag run, allowing the tyres to heat up in the rather chilly Kansas autumn sunshine before the next caution on lap 45 for debris dropped from the car of Jennifer Jo Cobb. With the exception of Brendan Gaughan the drivers took the opportunity to return to pit road, Blaney winning the race off to take up second place for the restart while Busch was lucky to escape serious damage after contact with Corey LaJoie as the #54 exited the Joe Gibbs Racing pit stall.
It took some doing but on lap 55 Blaney finally got back around Gaughan to resume the lead and pull out a 2.5s lead over Buescher despite reporting a troubling vibration in the process. That was before the fifth caution on lap 74 when the right rear tyre on Joey Gase's car blew, the #52 collecting Townley and only narrowly missing also taking out Regan Smith on the backstretch.
Brian Scott won the race off pit road ahead of JGR team mates Matt Kenseth and Elliott Sadler with Blaney in fourth ahead of Busch and Gaughan. Kenseth took the lead on lap 80 after a thrilling three-way fight before a new caution for Mike Bliss spinning following contact with Ryan Sieg. The restart allowed Sadler to take the lead on lap 88 before yet another caution, this time for Kyle Larson spinning coming out of turn 2 and then rebounding down the track into the right hand side of Buescher's car as the #60 tried to take evasive action, doing heavy damage to both cars. The leaders stayed out, while Kevin Harvick was one of few cars to take the opportunity to pit in the hope of making it the rest of the way on only one more stop but temporarily dropping the #5 down to to 19th place.
Sadler kept the lead at the restart and continued to pace the field until lap 125 when he was relieved by his team mate Kyle Busch. Busch was in for his first green flag pit stop of the day on lap 139, with Sadler losing out after running dry and Harvick cycling into the lead as a result of his off-sync deferred strategy. Before Harvick could make his own stop, the eighth caution of the race came out for a spin by Dakota Armstrong in turn 2 just as Kyle Busch came close to collecting a broken right front sway bar dropped from Regan Smith's car, itself a serious blow to Smith's championship campaign.
The timing of this caution was perfect for Harvick who was able to come in for his own stop while second-placed Busch was also handed the opportunity to come in for a quick top-up, but everyone else was forced to stay out in order to keep on the lead lap for the curtailed restart on lap 152 which quickly saw a pinball series of contacts through the closely-packed field that ended up with Chase Elliott punting Jamie Dick into the wall in turn 2. The new caution allowed anyone who still needed to make a stop to come down pit road for repairs or extra fuel to ensure they could make it all the way to the finish, while Harvick and Busch stayed out at the front followed by Menard, Blaney, Kenseth and Dillon for the restart on lap 161.
Harvick initially shot away into the distance while Busch had his hands full fending off Blaney, but once that was taken care of it was clear that the #54 was the faster and better-handling car and Busch was soon advancing on Harvick again, finally pulling off a pass for the lead with 20 laps remaining. After that he had no trouble in growing his lead up to over a second despite having to navigate his way around more lapped traffic, and with no further cautions materialising he was able to claim his sixth Nationwide win of the year but only his first of the season on a 1.5-mile track.
"Whoo! We won at Kansas!" cheered Busch over the JGR team radio as he crossed the line for what was just his second series win at the venue. It bodes well for Busch for Sunday where he lines up in seventh place on the grid, as he has scored a top-five in a Cup race here.
"It was really awesome again today and should have won at Chicago just like we did here today," he continued. "Missed out there, but we just keep doing things right, and you end up in Victory Lane, so you have to have it all match up for you.
"You learn enough here," he explained. "There was a bit of moving around today and trying to run bottom and trying to run top and seeing where the different lines were in traffic and stuff like that ... I feel like our Cup car is okay - if we can get out of here with a top-10 day tomorrow that would be pretty good."
Harvick admitted that despite his early domination, his #5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet just hadn't had the pace or handling to hold on for the win toward the end: "The #54 was quite a bit better as we got going into the run," Harvick explained. "We could hold him off for a short run, but in the end his car would maintain speed, and ours would slow down ... We just got beat there today, but that happens."
Blaney was the only driver able to stay in touch with the top two, and he was nine seconds ahead of Menard, Dillon, Kenseth and Sadler with Trevor Bayne crossing the line in eighth ahead of Brian Scott and Chase Elliott.
Despite not having the best of races this weekend, tenth place means that Elliott nonetheless extends his lead over Regan Smith to 38 points after Smith finished eight laps down in 22nd place. Smith is now only two points ahead of Ty Dillon who is in third place in the standings with four rounds remaining in the 2014 season.
"Any time you have to roll a backup car out two hours before a race, you have to expect anything to happen," sighed Smith, who was this week confirmed to stay on at JR Motorsports for 2015. "My guys did a great job of getting the car ready to where we could get to the grid with it, much less be competitive for the first stage of the race ... We fought with it. It's kind of what we anticipated for the day and at this point. Obviously disappointed, it's been a long year."
In the owners' standings, Blaney's #22 Team Penske Ford has a 27 point lead over the Joe Gibbs Racing #54 Toyota driven this week by Kyle Busch.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.