By Jeff Wolfe
Brad Keselowski went from just trying to stay on the lead lap, to being the leader at the right time to win Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway Sunday.
Keselowski won his fifth race of the season, and for the second time in three races in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the sport’s version of the playoffs. It was his ninth career win and first career victory at Dover in what turned out to be a fuel-mileage race at the end. The win also put Keselowski in first in the Chase with a five-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.
Midway through the 400-lap race on the one-mile oval in front of 85,000 fans, Keselowski’s first priority was just trying to stay on the lead lap. A jack failure in the pits caused the No. 2 Dodge crew to have a long pit stop under green flag conditions. And while the team reacted quickly, when Keselowski got back up to speed, Kyle Busch, the leader at the time was threatening to pass him.
Keselowski pulled far away enough to avoid being passed and remained one of the few drivers on the lead lap as a poorly timed caution early in the race had put all but the first six cars one lap down. Then the next-to-last caution with 90 laps to go, played in Keselowski’s favor in what turned out to be fuel mileage race. He went 85 laps on the his final tank of fuel to hold off second-place Jeff Gordon, who was also stretching his fuel and a fuel-saving Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, who led 39 laps late in the race, at the end for the victory.
“I felt like we were as good as anybody on mileage,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “I felt like the guys we were racing, we would push them as hard as we could. At the end of the day, we don’t want to make any bad decisions, but we still came here to win a race.
“There’s a part of me that at the end of that race I wasn’t really thinking the championship as much as I was getting to Victory Lane, doing the things we’ve done all year to get us here. That wins races, to not be scared to make some decisions that maybe some other teams wouldn’t.”
The final pit stops came after a caution with 89 laps to go when Matt Kenseth’s car had a rear suspension piece break. The repairs didn’t take and just two laps later the fifth and final caution flew as Kenseth’s car broke again.
On that final caution, some drivers came in for one last bit of fuel, and that included Gordon, who was near the end of the lead lap. But Busch, Denny Hamlin and Johnson, the three drivers who had led the large majority of the race for the day, didn’t come in for extra fuel. And as the laps started to wind down without a caution, it was apparent they were either going to have to slow down to save fuel, or come in for a quick splash.
Busch and Hamlin each came in with ten and nine laps left, with Busch relinquishing the lead and Hamlin giving up second. Johnson was in such a fuel-saving mode that Keselowski had passed him earlier, then Gordon and Martin a little later.
“I like the strategy we have, how we do it,” said Keselowski, who drives the lone Dodge in the Chase and seems to get the best fuel mileage in the series. “Certainly we’re executing it very well. But, yeah, I mean, a lot of it is on the team. It sounds great to give the credit to the driver. But the engine and the strategy make it all work, as well.”
Whether he was saving fuel or not, Keselowski knew his car was good. That was apparent when the jack issue put him at the very rear of the lead lap with Busch in his rear-view mirror.
“That’s not something you see every day, I can tell you that,” Keselowski said of the jack issue. “Like I said, that’s a mentality. A lot of people can play that out as luck. In a lot of ways, you make your own luck.”
That run to me was one of the most important runs of the day with the exception of obviously the last one because it showed we had a strong car, that in equal footing, equal track position, we could run just as fast if not faster than the lead group.”
The first caution the day turned out to be bad luck for much of the field. While Hamlin, and then Busch, were marching through the field and lapping slower cars, they had not pitted when the first caution came out on lap 70 for debris. That left just six cars on the lead lap for the restart. And even with the Lucky Dog rule which allows the first car one lap down to get back on the lead lap at a caution, and the wave-around rule which allows cars to choose not to pit to make up a lap, the race finished with just six cars on the lead lap.
“It’s weird how that works sometimes,” Keselowski said. “I think different tracks lend themselves to it. I don’t know if we got lucky. I don’t know how that all worked. But it certainly changed the dynamics of the race. Some guys ended up on the bad side, some guys ended up on the good side. We were fortunate enough to end up on the good side. That’s good by me.”
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Busch and Hamlin certainly had good cars early on. Hamlin, who started on the pole, led the first 34 laps of the race. Then Busch was dominant for the much of the rest of the day, leading 302 laps on the oval known as the Monster Mile.
But as has been the case for much of the year, Busch, who missed the Chase for the Championship this season, had more bad luck as there were no cautions in the final 79 laps, not allowing him to make it the rest of the way without stopping for fuel. That relegated him to a seventh-place finish, one-lap down and Hamlin ended up eighth.
The rest of the top 10 following Keselowski, Gordon, Martin and Johnson were non-Chaser Carl Edwards in fifth, Martin Truex, Jr., then Busch and Hamlin followed by Clint Bowyer and non-Chaser Joey Logano.
The Sprint Cup Series could have the biggest wild-card race of the final ten races next Sunday at Talladega, a restrictor plate track where any driver can win, and any driver can get caught in the so-called “Big One” that can change the complexion of the Chase. ESPN will broadcast the race starting at 2 p.m.
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