LOUDON, N.H. – Taking a deep breath at the winner’s podium, Brad Keselowski took a second to savor his dominant Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Keselowski captured the pole, then led 152 of 200 laps to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200. In addition, he posted the fastest times in both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice sessions in preparation for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301.
“One helluva Saturday,” said Keselowski, who recorded a perfect driver rating for the sixth time in his Nationwide career and has finished no worse than third in any of his six Nationwide Series starts this season. “Sometimes on these really busy days you get so caught up in the action that you really can’t appreciate all that’s transpired.
“We have so much to be proud of there and, obviously, we’re looking forward to tomorrow and the opportunity we have. Our Cup car was fast this morning. Our Nationwide car in qualifying had a lot of adversity but we fought through that and got the pole. In the Nationwide race the car was really fast.”
In addition, Keselowski’s Penske-prepared Hertz Mustang became the first Nationwide Series car to win from the pole position in 17 races this season. He also won the March 8 race at Las Vegas and now has 29 victories in 211 Nationwide races.
Kyle Busch, the pole-sitter for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race, was Keselowski’s primary competition and finished second ahead of Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson and rookie Chris Buescher.
“It was a bit of a dogfight – one of the most challenging races I’ve ever ran, knowing that you have Kyle Busch behind you and he’s just a tiny bit faster,” said Keselowski, whose only mistake was accidentally dropping the American flag during his victory lap. “You have to fight through a line of cars and it seemed like there was always something coming at us.”
Busch pulled to within a car length of Keselowski’s rear bumper with 29 laps to go, but got loose on Lap 173, slid up the track and dropped nearly a second off the pace with 25 laps left. Taking advantage of lap traffic in the final 20 laps, Keselowski’s eventual winning margin was 1.8 seconds.
“It was actually very hard-fought there at the end,” Keselowski said. “He (Busch) was really good at making adjustments. I didn’t think I was going to be able to hold him off.”
Busch led the first 34 laps but never led again in falling just short of his fifth win in nine Nationwide Series starts at New Hampshire.
“We got what we could out of our Monster Energy Camry,” Busch said. “We had the best run there at the end but just not quite enough. We had to fight hard to get by a few guys, got to second but didn’t have quite enough to chase (Keselowski) down.
“If it was clean and green all the way to the end I don’t know if I could have got to him. I was hoping for a couple opportunities there in traffic.”
Keselowski asserted his car as the one to beat, leading 66 of the first 100 laps. By Lap 66, only Busch (2.88) and Kenseth (9.25) were within 10 seconds of Keselowski’s yellow No. 22 Mustang.
True to its name, the Sta-Green 200 stayed caution-free for 76 laps prior to a yellow flag for debris on Lap 93 that tightened the field.
Busch struggled after the restart while Larson seized the opportunity and tucked in second behind Keselowski. And he wasn’t second for long.
When Brian Scott got into the back of third-place Elliott Sadler, it touched off a spin that involved seven cars, enabling Larson to seize the lead.
Larson led the race twice for 11 laps. But when things settled down after the race’s fourth caution, Keselowski regained the top spot and went on to dominate the final 56 laps.
Series points leader Regan Smith didn’t have a top-five car but was the big bonus winner, capturing the $100,000 payoff in the first of four Dash 4 Cash races courtesy of Nationwide Insurance. Smith finished ahead of championship-eligible Nationwide Series drivers Ryan Reed (11th), Ryan Sieg (18th) and Jeremy Clements (20th), each of whom qualified for the Dash last week at Daytona International Speedway.
Smith was in control of the Dash for most of the race but had trouble during a four-tire change in the pits with 55 laps left. Although Reed restarted in seventh and Smith ninth, Smith regained command on his fresh rubber and maintained his advantage the rest of the way.
“The race was difficult for us,” Smith said. “We didn’t have the speed I thought we were going to have. The last pit stop we decided to go for four (tires), had a little hiccup, and it cost us some positions. At that point, you kind of know the situation for the day and it’s ‘OK, let’s take the silver lining and get out of here with the money. This means a lot to our team.”
Smith, Buescher, Sadler and Scott emerged as qualifiers for the second of four Dash 4 Cash races next Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway. Smith also became the only driver eligible for a $600,000 bonus – which will translate to $1 million in total prize money should he win the Dash 4 Cash at Chicagoland and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 26), then win the Aug. 2 race at Iowa Speedway outright.
Smith retained the series points lead by eight points over Sadler, who finished sixth, and 13 over Chase Elliott, who finished eighth.