Building a big lead during the final green-flag run and saving enough fuel to get to the end of the race, Keselowski won Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race in a backup car.
Keselowski, who wrecked his primary car after tangling with Juan Pablo Montoya on the first lap of Friday’s first practice session, picked up his series-best third victory of the season and the seventh of his career, all but assuring himself of a position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Now we can look forward,” Keselowski said, assessing his chances of making NASCAR’s playoffs. “We don’t have to look back at all, and that’s so big.”
Runner-up Kasey Kahne rallied from an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel on Lap 52 to finish 4.399 seconds behind Keselowski, followed by Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jeff Gordon came home fifth, one spot in front of pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson, as Hendrick Motorsports drivers claimed four of the top six positions.
“This just shows the importance of teamwork, and the group of guys I have on this Miller Lite team that are just bad-asses,” Keselowski said after the race. “I’ll tell you what, they put together a backup car from last year in 100-degree heat in an hour’s time — not even an hour. It was like 40 minutes.
“Got it on the racetrack and got to run our laps for practice to make the adjustments we needed to be fast today. That’s what bad-asses do, and that’s what got us to Victory Lane today, and I’m proud of these guys for it — damn proud of them. I think that sums it up.”
Crew chief Paul Wolfe had a different slant.
“All I heard was that Bad Brad was back this weekend, and I don’t know whether that’s good or bad,” said Wolfe, whose driver had a chip on his shoulder after, in his view, Montoya pulled up in front of him at half speed on the first lap of practice and caused the wreck.
In Wolfe’s view, Keselowski can find extra speed when his blood is up.
“Maybe it’s human nature that, when you’re ticked off or whatever, you’re able to find another level,” Wolfe said. “There are definitely a lot of instances where I’ve seen Brad be able to find speed in the race car when he is ticked off. Whether or not he’s doing it, it seems like it happens.”
Hamlin was saving fuel at the end of the race and had to surrender second place to the charging Kahne.
Earnhardt was pleased with his fourth-place run, but his drought-breaking victory June 17 at Michigan, which snapped a 143-race winless streak, has whetted Earnhardt’s appetite for more.
“We’re just ready to win,” said Earnhardt, who gained one position to second in the series standings, 11 points behind seventh-place finisher Matt Kenseth. “I really had fun winning the other week, so I’m ready to get back to Victory Lane. . . . I ain’t going to be as patient this time.”
Ignition troubles ruined defending series champion Tony Stewart’s night almost before it started. Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet fell off the pace on Lap 26. By the time his team diagnosed and fixed the problem in the garage, Stewart was 35 laps down.
He finished 32nd and dropped from fifth to ninth in the series standings.
A bad night got worse for Stewart-Haas Racing on Lap 210, when Ryan Newman, Stewart’s teammate, blew his engine, spun in his own oil and slammed into the outside wall in Turn 2, with Regan Smith hitting the wall behind him.
Newman retired from the race in 34th and dropped two spots to 15th in points, leaving both Kyle Busch (10th Saturday) and Kahne ahead of him in the race for the two wild-card positions in the Chase.
Chase spots are available to the two drivers in positions 11-20 in the standings who have the most victories in the first 26 races. Busch (12th), Kahne (14th), Joey Logano and Newman (tied for 15th) have one win each and are the only drivers in positions 11-20 to have won a race.
Clint Bowyer, last week’s winner at Sonoma, was the innocent victim of contact that jeopardized his seventh-place position in the standings. Shortly after a restart on Lap 155, Bowyer was racing in close quarters with Newman, on new tires, and Joey Logano, who took fuel only during a pit stop under caution on Lap 150.
With a huge run off Turn 4, Newman clipped the back of Logano’s Toyota in the tri-oval, turning him into Bowyer’s Camry. On Lap 166, Bowyer brought his car to pit road, fearing he had a tire losing air. Bowyer lost two laps in the process and fell to 32nd in the running order.
But a cycle of green-flag stops and a free pass as the highest-scored lapped car returned Bowyer to the lead lap under the caution for Newman’s wreck, and the driver of the No. 15 Toyota salvaged a 16th-place finish and held seventh in the standings.