Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Brad Keselowski, Ford Return to Victory Lane

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Darlington Raceway favors drivers who respect the track’s surface and configuration, and it’s no surprise that a veteran driver took the checkers for the win in Sunday’s (May 12) Goodyear 400. Brad Keselowski had been battling Tyler Reddick for most of the day, and the final restart of the race set up a final race to the finish with the pair on the front row.

Reddick had the preferred outside line thanks to his pit stall selection and exit from pit road, but Keselowski hung with him on the restart. Teammate Chris Buescher tried to swoop in to help but found his closing rate too high and instead took the lead from his boss and Reddick. Reddick recovered and went after Buescher while Keselowski stalked the pair from behind, waiting for one of the leaders to open the door for him. 

And they did. Racing Buescher for the lead, Reddick washed up into the No. 17, resulting in a cut tire for each driver. Keselowski inherited the lead, and from there, easily held off Ty Gibbs to take the win.

See also
Brad Keselowski Breaks 110-Race Winless Streak at Darlington, Earns 1st 2024 Win for Ford

It was Keselowski’s first win as a driver since taking on part ownership in RFK Racing. It was his 36th career win and first since the spring Talladega Superspeedway event in 2021.

And don’t forget Josh Berry. Berry didn’t get much attention from the broadcast booth, but Darlington is his kind of track. Racing the track brought Berry his best finish during a year when his Stewart-Haas Racing team hasn’t had a lot of bright spots. Berry finished a solid third after starting 33rd, with teammate Chase Briscoe also scoring a top-five run on the day.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

It took 13 races for a Ford to find victory lane. Keselowski ended the drought with the win, and five of the top 10 finishers were sporting the Blue Oval.

But are Ford’s struggles over?

The manufacturer’s stable has made gains in recent weeks. They fell about two inches short of winning at Kansas Speedway a week ago, and this week, the five top 10s were spread among four organizations: RFK Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Rick Ware Racing and Front Row Motorsports.

But noticeably absent was Ford’s flagship team, Team Penske, who didn’t crack the top 20 at Darlington. Ryan Blaney had been running well before getting involved in an incident, but Joey Logano and Austin Cindric languished in the final stage after Logano posted a fourth-place finish in stage two.

And behind their excellent, two top-five day, SHR is in the middle of a swirl of rumors about the organization’s future. Penske satellite Wood Brothers Racing has not found much success with Harrison Burton. Front Row’s veteran driver Michael McDowell is jumping ship for the Chevrolet team of Spire Motorsports next year.

All in all, it’s too soon to say Ford is back to being as competitive as Chevrolet and Toyota just yet. There needs to be consistency and stability in the Ford camp, and they aren’t quite there.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Reddick ran one of the best races of his career, leading laps, the most ever for 23XI Racing in one race. He gave up the stage one win on pit strategy but won stage 2 handily. For most of the day, the only driver who had much for Reddick was Keselowski.

On the final restart, Keselowski ran Reddick hard and allowing Buescher to get by them both, but Reddick ran Buescher back down. He made an aggressive move to pass Buescher but slid up into the No. 17 and ended his run with a flat tire and a subsequent commitment line violation. Reddick finished 32nd and apologized to Buescher afterwards as Buescher confronted him.

Defending race winner William Byron had a good car, just not a winning one. He led two laps in stage one but couldn’t hang with the leaders or teammate Kyle Larson, who crashed in the final stage. Byron finished a respectable sixth.

Active Darlington win leader Denny Hamlin didn’t have the speed of his 23XI driver Reddick, leading just one lap, but he was solid all day, hanging inside the top 10 for much of the race and scoring stage points in the second segment. Hamlin finished fourth.

Cup champion Ryan Blaney’s day ended early after a stage two restart scramble. With Blaney on the outside of Martin Truex Jr., Byron dove to the inside of Truex to make it three-wide before drifting to the outside, leaving Blaney with nowhere to go. The damage to the No. 12 relegated Blaney to a last-place finish.

When… was the moment of truth?

Darlington has certainly earned her nicknames over the years. Whether you call her the Lady in Black or Too Tough to Tame, the track has held its reputation for decades — with good reason.

With a surface that’s notoriously hard on tires and a high groove that will lure drivers in like a siren, Darlington demands that drivers race the track itself first, and then each other. 

That’s what Reddick did on the final run. He went head to head with first Keselowski (who backed out of the fray a little once Buescher made his move) and then Buescher. Battling with Buescher, he forgot about the Lady in Black for a moment, and she reached out and grabbed the No. 45.

See also
Chris Buescher Confronts Tyler Reddick After Late-Race Contact at Darlington

Both Buescher and Reddick discovered that the closing rate was almost too much to handle easily, and Reddick couldn’t quite hang onto his car as he made his run. He didn’t pinch Buescher to crash him or cut his tire; he couldn’t keep from washing up. Darlington dictated the outcome as she often does, favoring Keselowski, who raced her all day long.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series rolls into its All-Star break, running the winners’ event at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the second year. The track has been resurfaced for this year’s event. North Wilkesboro is an interesting choice for the All-Star event as it isn’t the type of short track that favors short runs; even when the Cup cars were better suited for short-track racing, the track produced more green flag racing than typically seen at Martinsville Speedway or Bristol Motor Speedway. 

Still, the track’s location close to home for teams and the track’s rich history and improbable resurrection in the 21st century makes it a good choice for the race. The addition of a tire choice rule is something to follow as well, because it could be implemented in points races down the road. But this weekend is all about fun and nostalgia. The pressure is off for at least one week.

Well, except for Larson. Larson will be in the pressure cooker for the rest of the month as he attempts to be the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to complete both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in one day. Kevin Harvick will be on hand in Wilkes County to practice and qualify for Larson as Larson attempts to make the NTT IndyCar Series field at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week.

How… does the championship picture look at the halfway point of the regular season?

It’s not as clear as it could be. Hamlin and Byron lead the playoff standings with three wins apiece, but both have backed off their dominance just a smidge. Neither were really in the picture this weekend at Darlington, where they both have had success. Larson, the only other driver with multiple wins, has been streaky. With eight drivers claiming wins so far (Chase Elliott, Reddick, Keselowski, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez have a win apiece), there’s plenty of room for drivers to post a W for a spot

Truex looks like he’s the closest to doing that, and Gibbs and Buescher also look close to victory lane. Defending champion Blaney hasn’t made a lot of noise this year but will likely make the show.

But making the playoffs and winning the title are entirely different things, and in the Next Gen era, it’s hard to choose a title favorite even this deep into the regular season. Drivers look like they’re hitting a hot streak only to fade to midpack, or they don’t look strong only to reel off a streak of good finishes. Teams don’t often ride a wave for too long with this car.

It’s hard to imagine two-time champ Logano staying outside the cut, and there are a few others who could grab a win this summer, so the picture is still hazy at best. 

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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