Brad Keselowski’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes continued Saturday, with an improbable victory in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway—his third win of the season and his second since breaking his left ankle Aug. 3 in a crash during testing at Road Atlanta.
Keselowski grabbed the lead on a restart with 80 laps left in the 500-lap Sprint Cup race and held on to win for the fourth time in his career. The victory all but assured Keselowski of at least a wild-card position in the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Martin Truex Jr. ran second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, polesitter Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Marcos Ambrose completed the top 10.
Johnson, Kenseth and Edwards all clinched spots in the Chase. They join Kyle Busch, who clinched a spot last week, as four of the 12 drivers who will be in the Cup series’ postseason. The Chase field will be set Sept. 10 at Richmond.
“Wow—the night race at Bristol!” Keselowski exclaimed after exiting his car in victory lane, his broken ankle forgotten. “I used to watch Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win this race. This is a race of champions. I can’t believe it. There’s races that pay more. There’s races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all.”
During the postrace celebration, Keselowski climbed onto the roof of his car, raised his fists into the air and then jumped from the roof to the tiled surface in victory lane. That’s when he remembered the ankle, but the sudden stab of pain didn’t diminish the satisfaction of a victory that belonged to a gritty driver and a team that produced in the pits when the race was on the line.
“A team that just starts to click and believe in each other,” Keselowski said in explaining his recent success. “I believed in (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) since we started this year, and we’ve just made good adjustments to our cars over the last few months. We made good adjustments to our car during the race today and found ourselves in victory lane. I can’t believe it—I just can’t.”
Since Keselowski broke his ankle, he has finished first at Pocono, second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan and first at Bristol. He will compete with the other three race winners in the past five weeks—Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Busch—for a $3 million bonus Sept. 4 at Atlanta under the aegis of the Sprint Summer Showdown.
Should any of those drivers win the race, they’ll earn $1 million for themselves, $1 million for charity and $1 million for a fan. As a two-time winner in Showdown qualifying races, Keselowski’s will race for two fans, who will split $1 million if he wins.
Keselowski was a fixture in the top five all night long, but he didn’t make his winning move until late in the race.
After a caution for Mark Martin’s backstretch crash on Lap 361, Gordon, who led a race-high 206 laps, passed Kenseth moments after a restart on Lap 369. Seven laps later, Keselowski passed Kenseth for the second position while Gordon opened a lead of more than one second.
But a caution for debris on Lap 413 allowed all lead-lap cars to pit. Truex and Newman took two tires and restarted first and third, respectively. But Keselowski beat Kenseth and Gordon out of the pits to start alongside Truex. Keselowski got a huge jump on the restart on Lap 421, passed Truex for the lead and pulled away for the victory.
Notes: Johnson gained a share of the points lead with Kyle Busch, who finished 14th. … Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart had miserable nights, finishing 26th and 28th, respectively. Tenth in the standings, without a victory this season, Stewart leads Keselowski, who gained one spot to 11th place, by 21 points with two races left before the Chase field is set. … Paul Menard, David Ragan and Ambrose—potential beneficiaries of a wild-card spot in the Chase if Keselowski cracks the top 10—are 20th, 21st and 22nd in the standings, covered by a four-point spread. A driver must be in the top 20 after 26 races to take advantage of the wild-card rule.