Brad Keselowski had plenty of issues to deal with over the weekend.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver had only one lap of practice Friday (June 29) in his primary car before crashing and moving to his backup. Keselowski also wasn’t happy with fellow driver Juan Pablo Montoya’s aggressive driving that contributed to the practice crash. Then, just before the start of Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway, Keselowski checked his steering wheel only to find it was broken. Luckily, that was a quick and easy fix.
And like all the drivers, crew and the estimated 105,000 fans in attendance at the second Sprint Cup race at the track, he had to deal with the 100-degree heat.
But, none of those were enough to keep Keselowski from becoming the first three-time winner in the Sprint Cup series this season. It was his seventh career victory as he led the final 56 laps after running in the top five for most of the race.
“Well, it was probably the toughest weekend as a team that we’ve ever had up to this point,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “Not only did we have obviously really high temperatures. But having trouble on the first lap of the racetrack always sets you back. One thing about all the guys on the Miller Lite team is it seems like we’re able to find another level to work when it comes to adversity.”
Keselowski, sometimes known as “Bad Brad” seems to raise his intensity too under difficult circumstances or maybe when he has reason to be upset with another driver
“Certainly there’s always that little bit extra you get when you’re fired up,” said Keselowski, who said he did not speak with Montoya after the practice incident. “A lot of people would say that’s a bad thing in a racecar. The adrenaline is the worst thing that can happen to you, because you don’t focus as well. Well, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I ain’t the one to answer that.
“But I do like the result, and whatever way, whatever I’ve got to do to get them, I’ll get them. But I’m not going to be pushed around, and that’s one code that I’m going to continue to live by. That’s how it shaped out in the beginning and for whatever reason it worked out the way it did in the end, and I’m not sure why. But it did and I’m thankful for that.”
It’s not the first time Keselowski has thrived under difficult circumstances. He won the August race at Pocono last season, when it was 500 miles, after suffering a broken foot in a testing crash the Wednesday before the race.
“I think you see that with the driver as well as you look back to last summer when Bad Brad had a broken foot,” Wolfe said. “And we were able to take that and I don’t know if he thrives off of that or what, but it seems like when some people might think we’re down and out, we’re able to find a whole other level to compete and find ourselves in victory lane.”
Just getting those victories is what Keselowski is focusing on. While the No. 2 team has had its share of inconsistencies this season to keep it at 10th in the points standings, the three wins virtually guarantee it a place in NASCAR’s playoffs, the last 10 races called the Chase for the Championship.
“I think looking ahead means trying to make sure we just stay in the top 10,” said Keselowski, who led 68 laps. “I think you all got the points backwards. You look at who is leading with most points earned. That don’t mean anything. The only thing that means anything is what’s going to restart when the Chase is going, when it starts. That’s going to be based off of who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins. That is the only thing that matters.”
None of what Keselowski and his team did Saturday night would have mattered had he not realized his steering wheel was broken before the race.
“I put it on before the race started, gave it a tug and it broke in my hands,” Keselowski said of the steering wheel. “If that would happen on the racetrack today we’d have been obviously not winning the race and potentially worse. So I’m glad I backchecked it before the race started and glad we were able to get a new one on the car.”
The only possible issue, and chance for his pursuers, was if Keselowski ran out of fuel. He took his last pit stop on lap 208 of the 267-lap race and appeared to be saving some fuel on the final laps. But that wasn’t a factor as he had more than a five-second lead on Denny Hamlin and eventual second-place finisher Kasey Kahne, who appeared to have the fastest car late in the race after rebounding from being a lap down due to a loose tire earlier in the race.
“I just hoped he’d run out of gas,” Kahne said. “There was no way I was catching him. We had enough gas to run as hard as I could all the way to the finish, and I was hoping his would shut off, off of two or something.”
There were plenty of other contenders throughout Saturday’s event on the 1.5-mile oval, but they each had issues that were too much to overcome.
Hamlin, who finished third, would have liked to have challenged Keselowski, but had to conserve fuel throughout the final green-flag run of 47 laps in a race that saw four cautions for 24 laps.
“We knew we had to save fuel the entire last run,” said Hamlin, who led 58 laps and announced before the race he had reached a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. “There was nothing I could do. As much as I wanted to keep the [No.] 2 honest and run him hard, I had to run a certain pace and that’s all I was allowed to do if we were going to make it to the end.”
The rest of the top 10 following Hamlin was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Busch. Busch led a race-high 118 laps, but suffered a broken shock mount on his car after contact with the wall exiting turn 2. Busch needed to pit four times during the final yellow to get the shock mount replaced and ralled to finish where he did.
Johnson, who started on the pole and led 21 laps in a race that had 17 lead changes among six drivers, dropped back on the final restart when his car was extremely loose and he thought a tire might be going down. However, the No. 48 regained its handling and he picked up several spots in the final 20 laps to give Hendrick Racing four of the top-six finishers in the race with Kahne, Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson.
“To see how well the Hendrick cars are right now, I mean, it’s great to see,” Kahne said. “It’s great to be part of that. All of the guys should be really happy because they’ve prepared us some pretty nice cars and our engines run great. It is nice to be part of that organization.”
The Sprint Cup Series returns to action Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Coverage starts with Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. TNT’s special “Wide Open Coverage” of the Coke Zero 400 (with limited commercial interruptions) will start at 7:30 p.m.
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