Lexington, Ohio — As the laps dwindled, Chris Buescher’s anxiety rose.
The 21-year-old rookie was leading the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — gunning for his first victory — but was running out of fuel.
“I was really focusing on taking deep breaths at that point,” Buescher said about the final laps before he hung on to capture the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 on Saturday for his first victory. “I found myself on every straightaway just telling myself to relax a little bit.”
Buescher took the lead on the 68th of 90 laps and sipped fuel the rest of the way to hold off Regan Smith and Brian Scott.
Smith, in particular, was waiting for Buescher to run out of gas.
“I was surprised that he made it,” he said. “I didn’t have much more for him there at the end. I was sitting there watching him, thinking at any point he was going to run out.”
Buescher, driving the Roush Fenway Racing Ford sponsored by — fittingly — Nationwide Children’s Hospital in nearby Columbus, took the lead from Brendan Gaughan and weathered a restart to hold on the rest of the way.
“We do have a fuel-pressure gauge in the car and I think it was with two (laps) to go it started flashing at me,” Buescher said. “On certain areas of the track, (the car) was just starving for fuel. I spent the last lap just kind of shaking (the car) back and forth a little bit to make sure we got all the fuel we could into the pickup. It was nerve wracking to say the least.”
In the end he had enough left over to make a celebratory run — in the wrong direction — down the home straight after the rest of the field had left the track.
“It was cool to be able to pull it off and to have plenty left over for a good burnout at the end,” Buescher said with a grin.
Crew chief Scott Graves had no choice but to keep Buescher on the track, even as his fuel evaporated. Buescher went the final 38 laps without topping off his tank.
“This isn’t the first time this year,” Graves said of Buescher’s ability to make his gas last. “We did it at Loudon as well and surprised a lot of people (while finishing fifth). He’s quickly gaining the reputation as a fuel-saver, for sure.”
The victory was Buescher’s first in 30 NASCAR Nationwide Series races, also representing his eighth top-10 finish in 2014.
Chase Elliott, who finished fourth, retained his lead in the season standings by 10 points over Smith.
Alex Tagliani was fifth, followed by Justin Marks, Elliott Sadler, Dylan Kwasniewski, Trevor Bayne and Dakoda Armstrong.
During the fourth caution of the day on lap 51 — Kenny Habul drifted off the course and into the grass — pole-sitter Sam Hornish Jr. stunned the crowd strung along the 2.258-mile track by pulling into the pits and then turning into the garage area. His crew worked feverishly to get him back on the track, but his day was done — after leading or being close to the lead all the way to that point — due to missing a shift that led to engine trouble.
Scott and Tagliani — his closest pursuers — pitted and dug in for the finish.
Bayne and then Gaughan traded quick leads before Buescher took over.
On Lap 58, Tagliani nosed Scott off the track briefly. Scott had to pit soon after, with steam rolling off his overheated engine. He was able to finish — although he never made up the lost time.
“I felt like we were the car to beat,” Scott said, calling the outcome heartbreaking. “I just had a run-in with a guy that doesn’t race in our series regularly and really has nothing to lose. He got inside me and I gave him room, he missed the corner and drove me into the grass. It clogged our grill and made us change our pit strategy because we were blowing water. That chain of events right there put us behind the guys we were ultimately racing at the end to win.”
With others pitting or falling back, Buescher took control. With under 20 laps to go, Buescher outdueled Smith and took advantage of the narrow track to maintain his lead. Under a threatening sky, he built his lead to 1.5 seconds with 10 laps remaining.
Then the suspense built as the laps piled up and Buescher’s tank grew emptier.
“I saw him shake the car once on the last lap and thought he was running out there,” Smith said, mystified by how Buescher was able to keep going. “But the record book doesn’t say how you won. It just says that you won.”
IndyCar leader Will Power takes pole at Milwaukee
West Allis, Wis. — Will Power gave Tony Kanaan a friendly tap on the arm when someone asked the fellow IndyCar driver about what it took to succeed at the Milwaukee Mile.
“Tell me!” Power joked.
No need — Power did just fine on his own. The IndyCar series points leader will start at the pole Sunday after being the only driver to surpass 169 mph in qualifying.
What a nice way to start the final three weeks of the season for Power, who has a slim lead over Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves in the standings.
“Obviously, a win tomorrow would be phenomenal as far as the championship goes,” Power said before narrowing his focus. “Just no other way to approach it but just be smart and keep your head down lap by lap. You can’t even think about the overall picture.”
Power topped qualifying Saturday with a lap at 169.262 mph. Castroneves will start eighth.
Tony Kanaan qualified second at 168.662 mph for his seventh straight top-10 start. A third Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, will start third.
After a week off in the series, the Milwaukee race begins a three-week stretch to end the season. Kanaan led a strong contingent from Chip Ganassi Racing, which will start four drivers in the top 11.
Kanaan won at the Mile in 2006 and 2007.
“We’ve been showing how quick we’ve been, how good we’ve been everywhere. We’ve just really got to get a little bit of luck on our side sometime,” Kanaan said. “Hopefully tomorrow we’ll challenge Will and some of the guys.”
Power took his third pole of the season, and the first since qualifying first in June at Texas.
The race is promoted by team owner Michael Andretti. The highest-qualifying Andretti Autosport driver was Marco Andretti, who will start ninth.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, third in the standings, will start in the second-to-last row in 19th place. Hunter-Reay won at Milwaukee the previous two years.
“We just missed the balance entirely today in qualifying — it wasn’t even close,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are going to have to pay for it tomorrow.”
Andretti driver James Hinchcliffe had the top speeds at both practice sessions earlier Saturday, but made contact with the wall late in the second session. Hinchcliffe said the car was fine, but track conditions had changed by the time of his qualifying run. He will start in 13th position.