By his own admission, Penske's Brad Keselowski "almost messed it up on the restart" when he was pressured into a mistake and lost the lead to Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones with just over 30 laps of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Kentucky 300 remaining on Friday evening under the floodlights at Kentucky Speedway.
CLICK: Full Xfinity Series race results from Kentucky Speedway.
"I had control of the restart and lost it," Keselowski said after the race had finished. "I was more so frustrated with myself than anything else and trying to lose as little bit as I can. I was lucky to hang on to second when it all kind of shook out, and by being able to hang on to second that put me in position to really work over Erik and capitalise on the opportunity and struck at the end. I was just trying to minimize the damage of a poor restart on my part."
Fortunately Keselowski was able to stay in touch with Jones, and when the teenager got caught out behind some lap traffic with eight laps to go the more experienced Keselowski was able to take advantage of the moment and pounce to win back control of the race at the crucial moment.
"Erik drove a great race and I was able to hang with him just enough to pressure him and he got in a bad spot with a lapped car there, not really of his own fault, just part of racing, and when it happened I was able to just jump all over it," Keselowski said.
After that Keselowski wasn't about to make the same mistake twice, and no one was able to get around him again before the chequered flag. Having led for 72 of the 200 laps of the race - only Jones' team mate Kyle Busch managed more with 88 laps logged at the front - Keselowski crossed the line to claim his 33rd victory in 220 Xfinity starts and his first of 2015. It's the landmark 50th win for Penske in the series and the third time that Keselowski has gone to victory lane at Kentucky, his fifth time in total if you include his two Sprint Cup wins here as well.
This time his victory came with the unique prize of an old-style Crosley jukebox, very apt at Kentucky which is the home of country music: "That jukebox is cool as hell," said a delighted Keselowski. "I'm really pumped about the jukebox. That's awesome. I think more tracks should have cool trophies. I'm a little giddy about the jukebox, but I've always wanted one and I got one for winning a race."
Keselowski had starting the Kentucky 300 from fourth place after rain washed out qualifying and left the starting grid ordered by times set in the sole practice session. JGL Racing's JJ Yeley had been put in the unfamiliar position of leading the field to the green flag in pole with Richard Childress Racing's Ty Dillon next to him on the front row and Dillon's team mate Brendan Gaughan starting third alongside Keselowski.
Dillon immediately took to the front even before John Wes Townley spun on the frontstretch to bring out the first caution of the evening on lap 2. Dillon was eventually ousted from the front on lap 16 soon after the restart by Kyle Busch, who continued to lead through the competition caution pre-arranged for lap 25; he was still just about holding on ahead of Keselowski and RCR's Paul Menard when Ryan Sieg - already under the weather with strep throat - went for a spin in turn 2 to bring out the third caution of the night on lap 71 and a chance for everyone to pit again under yellow.
Busch retained the lead in the race off pit road but Keselowski had just got around him when the caution flags were quickly out again on lap 79 for Derek White hitting the wall in turn 3. Keselowski was able to fend off Busch and retain the lead at the next restart, leaving Busch fighting off his JGR team mate Daniel Suarez for second place while the third JGR car of Erik Jones was busy contesting fourth with Menard.
By lap 125 when a round of green flag stops got underway, Keselowski's lead over Busch was up to two seconds and it seemed that none of the JGR cars had what it took to reel the Penske back in again. However, fast work by the team pit crew enabled Busch to leapfrog Keselowski on pit road and reclaim his lead again on lap 140, and he promptly used the clear air out in front to pull over a second away from the rest of the field. By lap 160, with 40 laps left to run, there were just 11 cars on the lead lap after Busch succeeded in putting HScott Motorsports' Brennan Poole a lap down.
That safety margin was wiped out three laps later by the final caution of the day for John Wes Townley hitting the wall in turn 2. That allowed everyone to make their final visits for fuel and tyre under yellow: while Busch took a full set of fresh rubber, Keselowski opted for two tyres only and duly won the race off pit road ahead of the JGR cars. However the gamble appeared to have gone awry when Keselowski got a push from Busch at the restart that left him spinning his wheels which allowed Jones and Busch to get past him. Keselowski was able to scramble and quickly recovered one of the lost positions, but Jones was looking too strong as the youngster quickly built up a lead of over a second.
"When Erik got by me there on that last restart I thought, 'We'll get right back by him,' but it was not easy," admitted Keselowski. "Erik drove a great race and I was able to hang with him just enough to pressure him."
Keselowski's patience paid off and when Jones got held up by lapped traffic, Keselowski was able to make a daring inside pass on lap 192 and then protect his lead all the way to the finish. His margin over Jones at the line was a relatively slender 0.241s with Busch and Suarez making it three JGR cars in the top four - but crucially, all three of them denied the all-important win itself by Keselowski.
"I just caught a little break, to be honest," Keselowski said of his late pass for the lead. "One of the lapped cars locked in Erik. He had done a heck of job and still was doing a heck of a job, and sometimes things don't go your way.
"I kind of thought it might happen and went into the corner high, just ready for something to happen, and it did, and I was able to make the most of it coming off turn 4 and make the pass for the lead."
"I wish I would have known the lapped car was going to the bottom and he would have went to the top," sighed Jones, who has already claimed two victories at Texas and Chicagoland so far this season despite still being officially a Truck Series regular in 2015.
"Getting the lead on the restart, we had a shot at it at that point. It was good enough to maintain, and it's a bummer it didn't work out," he added after finishing second for the second night in a row, having also narrowly lost out to Matt Crafton in the Truck race 24 hours earlier. "But it's nice to be running with those guys, with Kyle and Brad, and to be mixing it up with them. We'll keep building and see what we can do next time."
"We had a good car tonight and I think probably the top three were all real close," said Keselowski, thanking crew chief Greg Erwin for how good the #22 had performed through the changing conditions as the race had gone through the sunset and into the relative chill of the floodlight night time stint.
"Credit to Greg and the team for having a great car to where we could make the most of the opportunity, and I feel very, very humbled and proud to get to drive a car this good year in and year out at the Xfinity Series level," Keselowski continued. "I've been in situations where the cars weren't that way, believe me, and to know every time you get in the car you have a shot at winning every race every season that's really, really awesome and something to be proud of. To hit that 50-win number for Roger is special."
More than half - 27 to be specific - of those 50 Penske wins are down to Keselowski, although the former series champion has been reducing his involvement in the series in recent times: "I've really changed the Xfinity schedule over the last four or five years of what I run, from full-time in 2010 to I think I ran 24-25 in '11 and slowly have been reducing," he explained. "This year is the least amount of races I've ever run at the Xfinity Series level.
"It feels really good to get back in the car and I feel like I'm a good driver, but when you get in this car and win that confidence, that momentum, you just feel it in your soul, you feel it in your body and that energy that you have it just really feels special and I'm very pumped about this win today and feeling very much like we can carry it into tomorrow. I honestly think my Cup car is just as good, so we're ready."
Behind the top four, Roush Fenway Racing's Elliott Sadler finished ahead of Menard and Darrell Wallace Jr. Owner-driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. overcame multiple handling issues to bring the JR Motorsports' #88 home in eighth ahead of Gaughan with Regan Smith rounding out the top ten.
NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Chris Buescher overcame a vibration issue in the Roush Fenway #60 to came home in 11th place which means that he slightly extends his points advantage to 36 over JR Motorsport's Chase Elliott, who finished Friday's race in 13th place. Ty Dillon is a further ten points back in third, while Elliott Sadler moves one place ahead of Regan Smith with Darrell Wallace Jr. rounding out the top six. In the owner standings, Keselowski's win extends Roger Penske's lead to 43 points for the #22 over the Jack Roush-owned #60.
The Xfinity Series is back in action again next Saturday afternoon with the Lakes Region 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon on July 18.
See full race results from Kentucky Speedway and latest Xfinity Series championship standings.
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