Nationwide: Keselowski puts Penske on top
26 May 2012
A hot and humid Charlotte Motor Speedway saw the first Penske success of Memorial Day weekend - and team owner Roger Penske will be hoping that Brad Keselowski's intelligent, fuel-minded drive from tenth on the grid all the way to victory lane in the NASCAR Nationwide Series History 300 race is a good omen for things to come at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon.
Polesitter Joey Logano had got off to a good start when the green flag came out at just after 3pm local time, while behind him Sam Hornish Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. quickly took up the chasing positions after making short work of series rookies Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick for the time being.
After a brief yellow for a harmless spin by Travis Pastrana out of turn 4 on lap 6 in the loose-looking #99, racing resumed with Logano and Stenhouse making a break for it and only Kevin Harvick able to go with them at this stage. But the breakaway was shortlived, with the race quickly back under caution when Robert Richardson Jr.'s engine blew up, sending the car into a hard hit with the wall that left the fire extinguishers with some urgent work to attend to, and the track workers with a lot of oil to clean up.
That did at least give Pastrana the chance to get back on the lead lap, and Denny Hamlin the opportunity to come onto pit lane to get his carburettor replaced.
"I've been wondering where our speed was all weekend. We tried to change the carburettors, and that didn't fix it," said Hamlin. "[But] we got the handling [so that] it was at least drivable."
Racing resumed on lap 22, and this time Harvick was in charge of the outside line - not only stopping Logano from leaping away on the bottom, but actually managing to take the lead for himself and checking out from the pursuers. Kyle Busch also benefited by following Harvick through on the outside line to take second place from Logano, who kept on gradually falling back over the ensuing green flag laps as he also lost positions to Stenhouse and Kasey Kahne who were on their way to catch Busch for second.
Danica Patrick had just completed her first pit stop of the race under green, Mike Bliss and Sam Hornish were on pit road and Kevin Harvick looking to follow suit when the third caution of the night came out for Angela Cope's car coming to a smoking halt on the front stretch on lap 53. That dropped Danica back to 28th place for the restart, but at least she, Bliss and Hornish all got the wave-around back onto the lead lap. Meanwhile the pit stop was a slow one for Kyle Busch, who dropped seven spots to 11th.
Kevin Harvick lost the restart battle to Kasey Kahne, but the race was quickly back under caution when Travis Pastrana reprised his earlier unorthodox entry onto pit lane by spinning across the infield grass. That gave Stenhouse the opportunity to pit, having reported a problem with the #6 car that transpired to be a broken driveshaft that put him 22 laps down in 33rd place while repairs were effected.
Harvick was back in charge at the restart, with Brad Keselowski also edging in front of Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano looking comfortable in fourth place as the race approached mid-distance. and the second round of pit stops, this time a routine affair under green. Harvick continued to lead from there until the next caution came out on lap 127 for a spin by Tayler Malsam that sent him into a light brush down the wall in turns 3 and 4.
A variety of pit stop strategies under the caution shook up the running order somewhat, with Logano in charge of the restart on lap 131 but quickly losing out to Kasey Kahne for the lead, pursued by Brian Scott, Kyle Busch, Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick making up the rest of the top six. The green was a relatively short affair before a new caution came out on lap 138 when Josh Richards got loose and spun in turn 1, leaving the hapless Jason Bowles no where to go but right into him and pile drive them both straight into the wall. Bowles tried to limp back to pit lane, but the car was leaking fuel and caught fire, forcing him to park at the entrance to pit road - delaying pit stops and extending the caution.
When the pits did finally open on lap 143, there was the decision about whether to come in: it was still on the absolute limit to make it all the way to the end of the 200 lap race without at least one further caution or pit stop. Most came in, but leaders Keselowski and Kahne were unwilling to surrender their positions quite so easily. Justin Allgaier did likewise and moved up to third ahead of Logano, Harvick, Busch, Dillon and Hornish Jr.
The restart only lasted a few seconds before Brian Scott got loose on an untreated oil patch and spun coming out of turn 2, lightly tapping the back of Cole Whitt's car and sending them both into nose-first impacts on the inside wall along the backstretch.
Racing resumed on lap 155 with Keselowski pulling away at the front, and Kyle Busch moving past Kahne and Allgaier for second place a couple of laps later. The rest of the top ten consisted of Hamlin, Harvick, Sadler, Hornish, Logano and Patrick, and the dominating factor was emerging as fuel conservation: who could make it to the end if there were no more cautions? It seemed a big ask for the two drivers - Keselowski and Kahne - who hadn't pitted under the last caution and who now had to make their gas last 70 laps.
Hamlin - despite his early handling problems that had left him a lap down for much of the first stage of the race - certainly had no fuel concerns, and moved inexorably up the running order, finally moving past Kyle Busch for second place with ten to go.
"We were good on long runs, just didn't have a lot of front-line speed," said Hamlin. "I have to get better at our race-day adjustments. I just feel like I'm sending our crew chief off in the wrong direction at the start of these races."
Keselowski was now too far away to catch, but moving up into second had put Hamlin in the ideal position to benefit should Keselowski prove to have misjudged his fuel conservation and run dry in the final seconds. Unfortunately for Hamlin, Keselowski had it nailed to perfection: he cruised past the white flag and then did one more leisurely lap to claim the chequered flag, even having enough gas left in the tank to carry out the celebratory burn-outs once he'd picked up the stars and stripes.
"The Dodge has been known for having a bit of a fuel-mileage advantage over the last season and a half," said Keselowski after the race. "When you have an opportunity to maximize your advantage, that's what you've got to do."
Busch will be happy that his fledgling eponymous Nationwide team finally seem to have nailed their early season teething problems on intermediate distance tracks. He held on to third place ahead of Harvick, while Sadler had over a second in hand over Logano to seal fifth place. That was a crucial result for Sadler, who closes to within 13pts of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the top of the Nationwide points standings: earlier in the week, Sadler had been docked 6pts after his #2 car was found to have failed post-race technical inspection at Iowa last week for not meeting the minimum ride height; crew chief Luke Lambert was also fined $10,000 for the infraction.
But over in victory lane, Keselowski had delivered the first Penske win of the weekend, and now it was over to his stablemates in the IZOD IndyCar Series Team Penske to see whether Messrs Briscoe, Power or Castroneves can pull off the next stage of the weekend's success ahead of Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race back at Charlotte in the evening.