CLICK: Full race results and full Nationwide Series championship standings.
Early on it looked as though Brad Keselowski was in for the same sort of frustrations that beset him in last week's Cup Chase race at Kansas Speedway, but this time the outcome was very different as the Penske driver was able to bounce back and overcome the early adversity to claim a solid victory over fellow Chase contenders Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
It's Keselowski's fourth Nationwide win of the season in just nine starts, and his third career win at Charlotte Motor Speedway - hopefully a good omen for Saturday night's Cup race where a similar outcome is sorely needed to ensure that he stays in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Chase Elliott had lead the field to the green flag for the start of the Drive for the Cure 300 after earlier claiming his second Nationwide Series pole position with a lap of 29.776s (181.354mph) just 0.062s clear of Cup regular Kenseth in the Joe Gibbs Racing #20, but the initial start proved short-lived as JJ Yeley immediately spun out and collected a gaggle of cars including Matt DiBenedetto, Corey LaJoie, Tanner Berryhill, Mike Bliss, Derrike Cope, Will Kimmel, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ross Chastain, Dylan Kwasniewski and Jamie Dick.
When the race resumed eight laps later, Kenseth immediately got past Elliott to claim the lead before the next caution on lap 1 for Cale Conley hitting the wall in turn 3. Kenseth was able to maintain the lead at the next restart, with his JGR teammate Kyle Busch slipping into second place half a second back when Elliott decided to take the opportunity to take an early visit to pit lane.
Having started from tenth place, Keselowski had been methodically working his way forward and broke into the top six by lap 28, all of which was good practice for Saturday's race in which he will have to overcome a 17th place grid slot if he's to win the race and assure himself of progressing in the Chase. Unfortunately Keselowski then suffered a tyre issue and hit the wall, bringing uncomfortable reminders of last week' Cup outing at Kansas.
"It was a night of adversity to start," Keselowski admitted later. "We didn't quite qualify the way we wanted to, but we thought for sure we'd race really well. That first run in the race it wasn't looking like that was gonna happen and we all got really nervous. Then we lost a tyre and hit the wall and thought this was gonna be a real downward spiral."
Fortunately the damage wasn't too great and a visit to pit lane ensured Keselowski could keep running. A debris caution on lap 66 helped close up the field again shortly after a round of green-flag pit stops which left Chase Elliott out in front courtesy of his deferred pit stop strategy by the time another multi-car accident broke out on the frontstretch, when Dakoda Armstrong and Eric McClure squeezed Ty Dillon and triggered a pile-up that promptly caught up Cale Conley, Carlos Contreras, Jeremy Clements and James Buescher, with a seven-minute red flag required to clean up the mess.
Regan Smith took control of the race from his JR Motorsport team mate for the next restart on lap 80, but Elliott soon found his way back around to reclaim the lead and then went on to retain that advantage for the next 38 laps, with Kyle Busch in third ahead of Kyle Larson and Brendan Gaughan. Keselowski meanwhile was demonstrating that there was no lasting damage to the #22 car after its early issues and by the mid-point of the 100-lap race he was back up toward the front and contending with Larson for fourth place.
By the time the next caution came out on lap 113 for debris, Elliott had built up a lead of almost two and a half seconds over Smith. He also won the race off pit road while Keselowski got a bounce up to second, so that when the green flag came out on lap 119 it was a three-wide battle for the lead between Elliott, Keselowski and Busch which was temporarily settled in Busch's favour. Keselowski was on no mood to let the matter slide, however, and on lap 131 the sustained pressure finally yielded the reward that the Penske man had been working for.
The lead only lasted eight laps before a new caution for Chad Boat hitting the wall in turn 3 led to another cycle of pit stops which allowed Chase Elliott to return to the front ahead of Ryan Sieg and Kyle Busch for the restart on lap 139. Six laps later and Busch had once again taken control of the proceedings, taking a one second lead over Keselowski while Kenseth consolidated third place.
A debris caution on lap 166 triggered a new round of visits to pit lane which enabled Gaughan to win the race off pit road over Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. However Gaughan struggled to find the pace required to run at the front and got loose, causing him to lose multiple positions just before Corey LaJoie spun out and hit the backstretch wall on lap 176 to bring out the eight and final caution of the evening.
Ryan Blaney had control of the restart on lap 181 ahead of Keselowski, Busch, Kenseth and Larson but he was soon dispatched by the contingent of Cup regulars who were determined to make this a dry run for Saturday night. Keselowski got out in front and soon had a one second margin over Busch, and while Busch was able to reduce that down to just 0.377s at the line it was still Keselowski's race when the chequered flag came out, his 31st victory in a career total of 214 Nationwide races which puts him fifth in the all-time series win list.
Keselowski was quick to credit crew chief Jeremy Bullins and the whole team working on the #22 for being able to successfully recover what had seemed a badly compromised situation early in the race.
"Jeremy and the crew - hats off to them because they got us back in it," he said. "Good strategy and a can-do attitude and we got back on sequence, got our laps back and got in a position where we were even on tires at the end with the right adjustments in the car and a fast pit stop and from there it was just in my hands to execute the restarts and execute a few key passes and we were able to make that happen and that's how we got to victory lane today."
In the championship standings, an eighth place finish means that Chase Elliott not only retains but also extends his lead to 40 points in the Nationwide Series standings over JR Motorsports team mate Regan Smith who ended up finishing in 11th place. The biggest loser of the day is Ty Dillon, who drops to fifth place after being caught up in that early accident; Brian Scott and Elliott Sadler are the beneficiaries, moving up to third and fourth place respectively. In the owner standings, the Penske #22 extends its advantage at the top to 31 points over the JGR #54.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings.