NASCAR: Defending champ finally catches a break
CONCORD, N.C. — It was just another surreal moment in this disappointing season for defending champion Brad Keselowski.
He pulled away from his pit stall with his jack planted underneath his car.
The jack clattered and clanged as Keselowski dragged it around the track for what should have been one race-ruining lap around Charlotte Motor Speedway. Instead, Keselowski caught a break.
A late caution — one that ruined Jimmie Johnson’s shot at a record seventh Sprint Cup Series win at Charlotte — gave Keselowski the chance to make an electric final dash to the finish and end a 37-race losing streak Saturday night.
It gave the reigning champ his first victory of the season in a year in which he’s challenged for victories, but for one reason or another couldn’t close the deal.
It made him ineligible to defend his championship, so Keselowski’s win was the rare victory for a non-Chase driver in a “postseason” race.
Kasey Kahne at Phoenix in 2011 was the last non-Chase winner.
“We’ve had speed in our cars. There’s been weeks where we’ve had the execution, not as many as we want, but we haven’t always had those pieces together, and then there’s been weeks where we’ve had the speed and execution, we’ve just had some rotten luck,” Keselowski said. “It’s just been one of those years where you say, ‘How much more can they throw at you?’ I think we ran out of things for them to throw at us ... with the jack and we still found a way to win, so that was very special.”
The caution with 27 laps remaining was for debris on the backstretch, as Johnson had a healthy lead in a fairly uneventful race. Before the yellow, it seemed certain Johnson would win and pass Matt Kenseth for the Sprint Cup Series points lead at the halfway point of the Chase, while Kenseth would likely catch teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race to finish third.
Keselowski was an afterthought.
“That last caution there at the end kind of reset it for us and gave us the opportunity to get in Victory Lane,” Keselowski crew chief Paul Wolfe said.
Everybody headed to pit road, where Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon were the only two drivers to take two tires. They were the first two back onto the track, while Johnson led everybody else off as the first driver with four fresh tires. Only Johnson lost four spots on the restart with 23 laps remaining, while Keselowski picked his way through traffic from sixth to second.
Once he set his sights on leader Kahne, he stalked him around the track until he could make a pass for the lead stick with nine laps remaining. The victory gave team owner Roger Penske a win from every one of his drivers this season: Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney, Sam Hornish Jr. and Joey Logano in NASCAR, and Helio Castroneves and Will Power in IndyCar.
“When it was time to go, we raced the best, and it was Brad behind the wheel,” Penske said. “It wasn’t a fuel economy run. It was him digging deep and bringing us to Victory Lane.”
Kahne was second and followed by Kenseth, who increased his lead in the standings by one marker to four points over Johnson as the series shifts to Talladega.
Johnson, who wound up fourth, never saw the debris that cost him the victory. But Kenseth, who figured he was going to finish third either way, understood Johnson’s frustration.
“Obviously, with Jimmie dominating, and he didn’t get the win, you know he’s going to have, I don’t know the right word to say here, (it’s going to) bother him more,” Kenseth said. “You know he’s going to think about it more. I honestly didn’t look, and I didn’t even think about it.”
Nothing changed behind the leaders. Kevin Harvick is third in the standings, 29 points out, followed by Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, who had dropped from third to fifth at Kansas a week ago and couldn’t regain any position following his fifth-place finish Saturday night.
“When it’s time for championship time, you need wins. We can’t win,” Busch said.
No, on this night the win went to Keselowski, and Penske never doubted the champ would get it done this season.
“We knew we had good cars and we’ve got the best drivers. It was a matter of executing,” Penske said. “I never lost confidence, and I’m a glass half-full, not half-empty guy. I wanted to see Brad get a win. He didn’t want to go through this season after being a champion (not winning).
“You’ve got some great drivers sometimes that don’t make (the Chase). That doesn’t mean they’ve lost anything, it’s just the way it works out. This is a very competitive sport, every aspect of it.”