Brad Keselowski got the perfect preparation for Sunday's crucial Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, by clinching his second NASCAR Xfinity win of the year and his 34th victory in 224 series starts on Saturday afternoon against stiff opposition from his rival drivers and from the elements.
"Winning never hurts to build confidence and a large part of this sport is confidence," said Keselowski. "I am really proud for the whole Discount Tire Ford team."
CLICK: Full NASCAR Xfinity Series race results from Texas Motor Speedway.
Poor weather in the morning had forced the cancellation of Xfinity qualifying as well as both planned Sprint Cup practice sessions. That left the grid for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge decided by the order of the sole practice session on Friday, meaning Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon was handed pole alongside fellow Cup regular Keselowski in the Penske #22,
The start of the race itself was also delayed as the Air Titan track dryers struggled to deal with significant 'weepers' that kept introducing water back on to the track each time it was made ready for the green flag. Once the action did get underway, it was Keselowski who immediately dived down low on the first lap to take the early lead, but the favour was soon returned by Dillon eight laps later, and thereafter Dillon was able to stay in charge through the planned competition caution on lap 25 with JR Motorsports's Kevin Harvick taking up second place for much of the opening stint.
Dillon won the race off pit road to lead from Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch at the restart, and when Dillon started to fade it was Busch who was best positioned to take charge of the race on lap 54 but for only five laps before his pace too started to wane, allowing Harvick to go to the front on lap 60.
The next round of pit stops were under yellow after Mike Harmon stalled on the backstretch on lap 77. A penalty for Busch for two many men over the wall plus a bigger concern with a broken gear shifter dropped the #54 to the back of the lead lap; although he would rally back through the field during the middle stint, a second pit lane penalty on lap 167 (this time for speeding) meant he ended up finishing in 14th place.
Harvick was also forced to give up position when he needed to pit again to have lugnuts tightened on the #88. That left early leader Keselowski back in charge for the restart, which he held through to the next caution on lap 114 for debris after a braking point marker board came loose from the catchfence on the backstretch.
This time HScott Motorsports' Kyle Larson was the winner of the race off pit road with Keselowski in second ahead of JGR's Erik Jones, JR Motorsports' Regan Smith and RCR's Ty Dillon. Larson managed to fend off a passing attempt from Jones to retain the lead at the restart despite suffering from a serious tyre rub issue on the #42, and he soon had a two second lead over the field with Harvick quickly establishing himself as the best of the rest in second.
A round of green flag pit stops broke out in lap 160 with the lead passing briefly in turn to Keselowski, Ryan Sieg (RSS Racing) and Dakoda Armstrong (Richard Petty Motorsports) before finally returning to Larson on lap 170 only for the #42 to suffer a left-rear tyre failure six laps later that spun him out of the lead and triggered the fourth caution of the day.
With 20 laps to go and the floodlights starting to kick in, all the leaders opted to pit for fresh tyres and it was Austin Dillon who took charge of the restart from Keselowski, Harvick, Jones, Ty Dillon, Smith and RCR's Brian Scott. Jones made a bold three-wide move to bid for second but Keselowski fended him off and was soon busy successfully asserting his own claim on Dillon for the lead on lap 190, which proved to be the final change at the front of the day. After that the Penske car stayed firmly out in front for the remaining ten laps and ultimately crossed the line over a second clear of Harvick who had managed to get in front of Dillon in the final laps.
"Austin Dillon was really good and he was one of the toughest guys to beat," said Keselowski, after leading for a race-high 62 of the 200 laps on Saturday. "He ran a heck of a race. Harvick looked really good, Kyle Busch looked really good and Kyle Larson I thought was going to run away with the race until he had that flat. There was a lot of competition out there today and that makes this win very special for the whole Discount Tire Ford team."
Behind the top three, Erik Jones had to settle for fourth place in his second race of the weekend after he had won Friday's night's Camping World Truck Series event. He'll be back in action again in Sunday in the Sprint Cup race standing in for the suspended Matt Kenseth in the JGR #20 car.
The remainder of the top ten was taken up by Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez (JGR), Scott, resigning champion Chase Elliott (JR Motorsports), Smith and Elliott Sadler (Roush Fenway Racing). Sadler's team mate, the current points leader Chris Buescher, just missed out and finished in 11th place.
"It wasn't a bad day but not the day we were hoping for," said Buescher. "All in all we just couldn't get that one thing that was going to really turn our day around. There at the end we got a little too tight and I was just trying to keep adjusting on it to get it closer and probably over stepped."
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings, Buescher's points lead is trimmed to 24 points over Chase Elliott, with Ty Dillon a further six points back in third and Regan Smith just one point further back in fourth. Everyone else is now too far away to still be in the running.
"It isn't comfortable yet," admitted Buescher of his margin at the top. "It is a cushion that we have and I guess you average that out to 12 spots per race so if we go out and finish top-ten in the last two we should be in good shape. That would be cutting it too close for comfort but we need to just have some solid runs."
However the car owners' championship is already decided in favour of Roger Penske for a third consecutive year, thanks to Keselowski's win and Kyle Busch dropping to 14th place leaving the JGR #54 car 98 points adrift. That puts the #54 too far behind to make up in the remaining two races left in the 2015 season, with the penultimate event of the season being the DAV 200 Presented by Great Clips at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale in seven days time.
See full race results from Texas, plus the starting grid and practice speeds and updated Xfinity Series championship standings.
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