In the first NASCAR Nationwide Series race to be held during the day at Kentucky Speedway, Austin Dillon returned to the site of his first career NNS victory earlier this year to double up with what is now his second series win, capturing Saturday’s Kentucky 300.
Dillon, who started the race from the pole, regained the lead on Lap 151, slingshotting around Elliott Sadler to eventually build a three-second advantage before finishing with a 1.059-second margin of victory over runner-up Sam Hornish Jr.
Dillon dominated en route to his first career Nationwide Series win at Kentucky in late June, leading 192 of the event’s 200 laps. He wasn’t as dominating Saturday, leading just 65 laps (Sadler led the most with 93), but the most important thing is he took the checkered flag nonetheless.
“We weren’t the best car, but we were able to fight, fight, fight and get out in front there at the end,” Dillon said. “When we got the chance to take the lead, I just took it.”
Perhaps the biggest key to Dillon’s win came on Lap 162 when Eric McClure spun, bringing out the caution flag. Sadler was instructed by crew chief Lucas Lambert to follow Dillon and do what he did in terms of coming onto pit road or staying on the race track.
Sadler did as he was told, but Dillon snookered him, turning back onto the race track at virtually the last second before reaching the pit lane commitment cone. Sadler didn’t have enough time to react and was forced to pit for two tires and fuel, while essentially also watching his chances of a series-tying fifth win this season slowly fade away. Sadler entered pit road in second place in the race; he exited in seventh.
From that point on, Dillon remained in command. While he did get some late challenges from Sam Hornish Jr., Brendan Gaughan and Justin Allgaier, Dillon’s car remained the class of the field for the remainder of the race.
He even had to endure an uncharacteristic gushing bloody nose during the second half of the race, but by the time he reached the checkered flag, his bloody nose stopped and he presented a memorable birthday gift of sorts to team owner and grandfather Richard Childress, who turned 67 on Friday.
Much like James Buescher, who on Friday night won his second race of the season at Kentucky Speedway in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Dillon made it 2-for-2 in 2012 at the 1.5-mile Bluegrass State track.
Dillon was followed by second-place Hornish, who may have reignited what had been fading championship hopes, Gaughan in third, Drew Herring in fourth and Sadler wound up fifth.
As it stands with six races remaining on the schedule, Sadler leads Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the NNS standings by four points, has a 19-point advantage over third-ranked Dillon, leads Hornish by 46 points and Allgaier trails by a distant 103 points.
“I think this thing is going to go back and forth from now all the way to (the season finale at) Homestead,” Sadler said. “We felt like we could really make a big gain today if we were able to win the race.
“But we are four points ahead, so we’re right in the middle of this thing and we’ll go on to Dover. It’s going to be a good battle all the way to the end. I don’t see anyone stretching out a comfortable lead before we get to November.”
Dillon admits he sees some definite similarities developing between the way he won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship last season and how his rookie bid to win the title in the Nationwide Series is shaping up.
“We never really led until the end of the year in the truck series last year, and when we did, we kind of opened it up,” Dillon said. “This year, we’re coming from a little bit further than we’d like to be, but we’re still right there.
“We’ve said from the beginning, as a rookie team we’d just hope for a shot going into Homestead. If you have a good enough year as a rookie to have a chance to win the championship, I think that’s really good. Now, where we’re sitting, we just have to keep knocking them down.”
Sadler, who had led the Nationwide Series points standings for 21 of the first 26 weeks, came into Saturday’s race looking to regain the No. 1 top spot from Stenhouse, who entered Saturday with a nine-point advantage over Sadler.
“It’s frustrating not to be able to close out the day, as fast as we were,” Sadler said, adding that his car developed power steering issues late in the race that affected his ability to climb back even further in the field.
“We gave up some points today, six or seven points. We had a tire (issue) last week (while) leading the race, and then leading the race this week and the power steering went out,” Sadler said. “We just can’t buy any luck. So we feel very fortunate to be the points leader with what we’re overcoming.”
Stenhouse can relate about bad luck, as he finished 17th Saturday, three laps behind the leaders.
Dillon and Stenhouse earned the top two spots in qualifying, but when the race started, it was all Stenhouse, the defending series champion who was also making his 100th career start in Nationwide competition.
But when NASCAR invoked a mandatory competition caution on Lap 32 due to heavy rains late Friday night, Stenhouse crashed into McClure’s car on pit road, causing damage to Stenhouse’s Ford Mustang. Stenhouse brought the car back onto pit road two more times to have the damage repaired, and when racing went back to green-flag competition, Stenhouse had fallen from first to 28th.
And as if to add insult to injury, Stenhouse smacked the wall on Lap 50 when his right-rear tire blew out, prompting another pit stop and a further drop downward in the field, to the point where he exited pit road after repairs two laps off the lead.
Gone was his lead in the race, gone was his hopes for a win in his milestone Nationwide Series start and gone was his lead in the points standings.
Stenhouse, who won at Chicago last weekend, came into Saturday’s race with two wins and two runner-up finishes in his last four starts.
To his credit, Stenhouse never gave up. At one point in the race, he had fallen 23 points behind Sadler in the in-progress series standings. But even with being three laps down, Stenhouse continued to move forward, ending the race a lot better than he potentially could have wound up behind Sadler.
As for other drivers, Kurt Busch looked like he was shot out of a cannon at the start of the race. Doing double duty with Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire, Busch had Matt Crafton practice and qualify the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota (qualified 14th).
Busch was sent to the back of the 43-car field for not qualifying the car, but that proved to be more of an incentive than an obstacle, as he quickly climbed an almost unheard-of 28 spots in the first 20 laps of the 200-lap event, and was up to fifth place by Lap 38.
Unfortunately, Busch may have pushed his car too hard and too fast as his Toyota developed gear issues that ended his day prematurely on Lap 128. It was just another in a long list of misfortune that has hampered the struggling Kyle Busch Motorsports team this season.
Danica Patrick qualified 11th in the first race with new crew chief Ryan Pemberton, struggling through the first third of the race before rallying back to a 14th-place finish.
NOTES: The two youngest drivers on the Nationwide circuit, 18-year-old Ryan Blaney and 19-year-old Alex Bowman, had strong runs, finishing ninth and 25th, respectively. Of note for Bowman, it was only his second career Nationwide Series race, but his car suffered mechanical issues late, relegating him further back in the pack than what appeared to be a potential top-15 finish.