CLICK: Full race results
| Final Nationwide Series championship standings
Matt Kenseth managed to hold up under intense pressure from long-time race leader Kyle Larson in a thrilling green-white-chequered overtime finish to claim victory in the final race of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, the Ford EcoBoost 300 under the floodlights of Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday evening.
"It's cool to be here," he said after clinching his 29th victory in 283 Nationwide Series starts, but also his first victory of the year in either the Cup or Nationwide Series. "Kyle [Busch] usually hogs all the wins so I was happy that we could get one tonight ... Fun race and really fun race track. Glad to be here in victory lane.
"It's always important to win," he admitted when asked how it felt to finally break his year-long drought. "It's not like I tried harder today than I did the last 35 weeks. It's been a good year and been pretty solid. We've just had a lot of circumstances toward the end of the race where we haven't won. I thought we were going to have that again this week when I messed up and let Kyle [Larson] get by me, but thankful we had a chance to redeem ourselves and got rolling pretty good on that last one."
Pole winner Brad Keselowski and Turner Scott Motorsports' Kyle Larson had led the field to the green flag for the final time in 2014 in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski initially keeping the top spot but Larson quick to start developing the inside line with a view to making a move to the front as soon as it was ready, which proved to be on lap 6. Behind them ran a hat-trick of Joe Gibbs Racing car driven by Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch respectively who all quickly pulled away from Keselowski's Penske team mate Ryan Blaney running in sixth.
Larson was still leading on lap 34 - now with Busch up to second and closing the gap between them - when the first caution of the day came out for Dylan Kwasniewski suffering a flat right rear tyre and sliding into the wall in turn 4. Busch won the race off pit road to lead for the first time ahead of Larson, Kenseth, Regan Smith and Ryan Blaney, with Sadler in sixth ahead of 2014 series champion Chase Elliott. However Larson immediately seized the lead again at the restart, and held it throughout the next green flag stint although Busch did manage to close up again when Larson got held up by lapped traffic.
A new caution came out on lap 72 to allow track workers to recover the stalled car of Matt DiBenedetto which had pulled off onto an access road allowed the field to take a second round of pit stops under yellow. The JGR crew once again got Busch out in front of Larson with Blaney up to fourth ahead of Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Chase Elliott, Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler. Meanwhile Keselowski was down to 17th place after a long stay on pit road as the Penske crew threw everything bar the kitchen sink at the #22 to overcome some early handling issues that had seen the car sinking inexorably down the running order.
With the sun now setting and the floodlights firmly in control, the race restarted on lap 79 with Larson once more easily passing Busch for the lead. This time Busch was unable to go with him and fell back, with Blaney taking up the chase instead. He hadn't managed to find a way past the #42 by the time the next caution came out on lap 89m this time for a spin by John Wes Townley in turn 2. Most of the leaders opted not to pit, but Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott were among those to play the strategy card by coming in for fresh tyres while Brian Scott was in 13th after opting for fuel only.
Blaney was able to take the lead from Larson at the restart on lap 96, and by the time the next caution came out on lap 117 for Ross Chastain getting loose and nudging Corey LaJoie up into the wall in turn 2, Elliott was back up to fourth and Dillon eighth. Meanwhile Scott had tumbled to 21st with a loose car, and Kyle Busch was also struggling during this stage of the race with set-up issues, falling to sixth place as a result of the #54 becoming too tight in the cooling evening conditions.
Trevor Bayne narrowly beat Larson and Kenseth off pit road in a three-way near-miss, while Busch - despite having misplaced his left-side mirror - picked up fourth ahead of Blaney, Dillon, Paul Menard (a late substitution in the Richard Childress Racing #33 for an unwell Scott Lagasse) and Elliott Sadler; Chase Elliott fell back to 12th, one spot behind Brad Keselowski, who despite a lacklustre day was still comfortably in position to clinch the owners' championship in the #22 for Roger Penske. Larson immediately retook the lead again at the restart on lap 123 but the green flags lasted only four laps before a new caution for debris in turn 2. With few takers for pit road this time the race was soon back underway again on lap 130, Larson once more untouchable at the front.
A second spin for Townley on lap 143 allowed the field to make a new round of pit stops. Chase Elliott's off-sync pit strategy allowed him to go to the top after a fuel-only stop ahead of Kenseth, Busch, Larson, Bayne and Blaney for the restart on lap 148, but the worn tyres meant Elliott was immediately shuffled all the way out of the top ten which allowed Kenseth to take the lead for the first time of the night. He was able to pull out a two second lead over the field by the time the yellows came out again on lap 172 for a flat tyre on Trevor Bayne's car, which signalled the final round of pit top for virtually the entire field.
The exception to the rule was Paul Menard who had already taken his final set of fresh tyres under a brief earlier caution on lap 154 for Ryan Sieg spinning. That meant Menard took the green flag on lap 177 in the lead ahead of Kenseth, Smith, Busch, Larson, Blaney and Sadler, with Keselowski in eight keeping the #22 firmly on course to clinch the owners' title. Menard's tyre gamble worked as well as Chase Elliott's had earlier in the evening, which is to say not at all, and he quickly vacated the top ten leaving Kenseth once again pulling smartly away from Larson and Busch at the front, while a brilliant late run from Roush Fenway Racing's Chris Buescher had pushed the #60 into fourth ahead of Smith, Blaney and Keselowski.
Debris from Dylan Kwasniewski's disintegrating #31 car brought out the yellows for a ninth time on lap 186, and when the race resumed with ten laps to go Kenseth once again scampered safely into the lead leaving a four-wide battle for second which was finally won by Larson over Blaney, Buescher and Busch. The tenth caution followed soon after when Chase Elliott got up high and went for a lengthy grind against the outside wall, dropping debris on the track in turn 3 to necessitate a new flurry of yellow flags.
That left Kenseth taking the field to the green flag on lap 198, but this time he found himself unable to pull clear of Larson who went door-to-door with him, the #42 finally managing to take the lead just as the cautions came out again after Josh Berry went for a spin in turn 4 triggering a chain reaction involving several other drivers including Brendan Gaughan and Ryan Preece. The caution had come out just seconds before the leaders could be shown the white flag, meaning that there would now be a green-white-chequered overtime finish to conclude matters.
Larson was in charge ahead of Kenseth, Blaney and Busch, and once again it was side-by-side action between Larson and Kenseth with the deadlock broken by the sudden appearance of the Busch blasting around the outside which appeared to give his team mate Kenseth the aerodynamic boost he needed to clear Larson and finally pull away to clinch the chequered flag, with Busch narrowly managing to follow through and cross the line ahead of both Larson and Blaney.
"Every time we got away, the second-to-last kind of longer run I was getting away from the #54 and there were just enough laps left where I thought he was probably going to beat me," Kenseth said of the final flurry of restarts. "Then we got another caution and got out front and thought everything was looking good and then we kept getting short cautions ... I thought we were going to lose it there on that last restart, but thankfully we had one more chance and able to get it at the end."
"It was a good night," said Busch. "We come to these things to try to win. We didn't have a winning car tonight, but second is pretty good. All things considered it was a great year."
"We had a good night,echoed Blaney of his own race. "Towards the middle part of the race we were really good and we got the lead and it was really going good. I was really happy with our car. It fell off a little in the long run but we kind of over adjusted and got too tight toward the late stages. That last 25 lap run we were back to where we were good in the middle of the race but it just didn't end up going as good, we got too tight."
As the fireworks started all around the speedway, it was finally time not just for Kenseth to celebrate his first win of the year in any of NASCAR's national series, but also for Chase Elliott to officially celebrate his championship despite a somewhat disappointing end to his season with a 17th place finish at the line at Homestead which still gave him a 42 point winning margin over Regan Smith.
Also celebrating was the Penske team, after Brad Keselowski brought the #22 car across the line in eighth place which was more than good enough to seal the owners championship over the JGR #54 by 23 points.
"It was a great day - I thought that race would never get over," said team owner Roger Penske, who won the Verizon IndyCar Series championship with Will Power back in August and who could still add the Sprint Cup title to his year's haul on Sunday with Denny Hamlin. "I think we had a green-white-chequer and all we had to do was finish 25th, but you never know with all the action up front. Brad ran a great race and when you think about five different drivers it's really a credit to [crew chief] Jeremy Bullins and the job he's done in preparing the car for different drivers and with six wins, one with Ryan Blaney
"It's obvious that Nationwide means so much to us because it's the proving ground, the testing ground for our crew chiefs, young drivers and there's no question when you see Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson and the people who come up through that series that it means a lot to us," he added. "Everyone did so much to make this happen and obviously it didn't come down until the last lap there that we knew we had it, so two years in a row."
Chevrolet also clinched the manufacturers title despite Toyota picking up first and second places in the race, which was the last outstanding bit of business to be settled before closing out the season. With that taken care of it was time for the end-of-year parties to get started ahead of the winter holidays for the teams and drivers, for whom 2014 had been a one long, tough haul.
Of course, they'll all be back to do it all over again when the 2015 season gets underway at Daytona in February, with Chase Elliott already lined up to return and defend his newly-minted title.
Full race results from Homestead-Miami Speedway
Final Nationwide Series Championship standings
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed