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Keselowski shines bright in Bristol night

28 August 2011

With some drivers, an almighty accident can shatter their confidence as well as their bodies. But with Brad Keselowski, his Road Atlanta testing smash and consequent broken ankle seems to have transformed him into a race-winning machine instead.

Having already won at Kansas at the start of June, Keselowski bounced back just days after his accident to win at Pocono in one of those comebacks that wins the hearts of even hardened hacks. But he wasn't stopping there, following it up with second at Watkins Glen and third at Michigan to send him shooting up the Sprint CUp championship points.

His run of good fortune has to stop sometime. But it certainly didn't stop at Saturday evening's Irwin Tools Night Race on the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway oval.

Ryan Newman had led the field to the green flag just before 8pm on Saturday evening before an estimated audience of 156,000. He was alongside Carl Edwards on the front row, with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon starting immediately behind them at the start of 500 laps that would take almost three hours to complete.

Newman would lead only the first four laps for the whole night, before Jeff Gordon flexed his muscles and put the #24 into the front through the inside of turn 4 to lead the next 26 laps which included putting Andy Lally and Scott Speed, who had qualified the Whitney Motorsports #46 for the first time but who retired early with brake issues.

A debris caution put Lally back on the lead lap on lap 31 and also put Brad Keselowski into the lead for the first time at the restart after he won the first race off pit road of the night. Keselowski got loose after the green flag and handed the lead to Matt Kenseth who would go on to hold the position for the next 67 laps until the second caution of the night - also for debris - on lap 105, which was considerately timed for the next round of pit stops as well.

Jimmie Johnson won the race off pit road this time and led Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman to the green flag, but it was Jeff Gordon who immediately leapt into action and was challenging Keselowski for second within a lap. He found it tricky to complete the pass and had only just sealed the deal with Travis Kvapil's engine blew down the back straight on lap 128 to bring out the third caution of the night.

After this there was a lengthy 162 lap stint under green for drivers to settle into, which meant that a lot of big name drivers went a lap or more down thanks to the 15s laptime on a half mile oval. Kevin Harvick fell off the lead lap on lap 197, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne soon followed suit, and Tony Stewart (who had started at the back after a miserable qualifying) and Clint Bowyer were two laps down. By lap 233 only 20 cars remained on the lead lap.

Johnson had continued to lead until lap 183, but then Jeff Gordon proved too strong and got around the #48, which promptly slumped back to third behind Matt Kenseth as well. Gordon and Kenseth broke away from the pack and pulled out a 3s lead before the green flag pit stops cycled through just before the halfway point of the race.

Kenseth managed to get a better stop than Gordon and took over to lead for 16 laps until Gordon then got back around him to resume control of proceedings on lap 266. He stayed in front until the fourth caution on lap 297 which saw David Reutimann get encouraged into a spin by a push from David Stremme, with Denny Hamlin and Paul Menard running into each other as they tried to avoid the wreck. They were able to continue after a visit to pit road, but Reutimann was headed to the garage area for a 70 lap service. It was at least good news for Mark Martin who got the free pass back onto the lead lap.

Matt Kenseth once again had the better pit stop and led the field to green ahead of Jamie McMurray who had come out of seemingly nowhere to challenge for the lead: Jeff Gordon wasn't having that, and on lap 326 he put both of them in their place and took back the lead for himself, checking out by a second while McMurray, Kenseth, Johnson and Keselowski played around for the runner-up spot. Johnson found the competition too hot to handle and fell back, coming under pressure from Joey Logano for fifth position.

The track went yellow again on lap 360: Mark Martin, having previously received the lucky dog, now got the decidedly unlucky hard hit into the wall after he moved up the track and made contact with Brian Vickers who just happened to already be be there at the time. It was a hard hit and the #5 was seriously crumpled after slamming into the wall as a result.

At the restart, Matt Kenseth once again popped to the front with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray running behind him; and sure enough, two laps into the green flag and Gordon once again took over at the top through turn 3 and would stay there for another 45 laps - pulling out a 2s lead in the process while the chasing pack led by Brad Keselowski stumbled in traffic. In all, Gordon had led 209 laps during the race up to that point, compared with 110 for Kenseth and 76 for the now-faded Johnson. Keselowski, while never out of the top five all evening, had led only 9 laps during assorted pit stop sequences and seemed to be lacking that critical edge to have an answer for Gordon or Kenseth.

None of the leaders were feeling comfortable about fuel - 140 laps is just too far to run especially without a caution to help stretch the gas consumption - but any tentative plans to go to extreme conservation mode were thrown out on lap 413 by the sixth the final caution of the evening.

It was the result of Kyle Busch. Running ninth at the time and focussed on battling Martin Truex Jr., he fell over the lapped traffic of Terry Labonte and clipped the wall in turn 3, which resulted in the #18 shedding some debris onto the track. Ironically, Bobby Labonte was the recipient of the free pass and popped back onto the lead lap, while David Ragan, Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick all got back onto the lead lap by virtue of the wave around. Kyle was able to stay on the lead lap but had dropped to 17th place for the restart, and the accident had clearly taken the edge of the car's handling and for once at Bristol Kyle wasn't going to be a significant factor in the final laps of the race and would finish in 14th. His brother Kurt fared no better, however, finishing in 17th after twice getting slapped with pit lane speeding penalties on laps 107 and 308.

That gave the leaders a chance to make a welcome final visit to pit road, and Martin Truex Jr.'s crew chief called a two tyre strategy that put him back out on the track ahead of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon around to the green flag on lap 420, 80 laps to go.

Keselowski sense that this was his moment - now or never. He aced the restart on lap 420 and used his four new tyres to pass Truex Jr. on just the two. Behind him, everyone got held up fighting everyone else and no one was giving chase to the #2 which was slowly and carefully pulling away from them.

It looked like Gordon would be the biggest threat - he was distracted by a surge from Jimmie Johnson at the restart, then bumped into Kenseth several times in order to claim third place and go after Truex Jr. for the second spot. But two tyre strategy or no, Truex would not be moved and was able to thwart all Gordon's advances for the remaining laps despite multiple side-by-side runs. A the laps ticked down the the chequered flag came out, Gordon had to settle for third place while Truex held on to second, his best finish in four years.

"It was back in '07, the last time I run second or won, you know?" said Truex afterwards. "It's a helluva good feeling when you can see the leader at the end of one of these things. You know you're in the ballpark and you got something for 'em."

Truex denied that the two-tyre strategy had been much of a gamble, all things considered. "I don't think it was that big of a gamble, really. The position we were in, we had to do it," said Truex. "We took two the first stop of the race and that got us track position and we were able to maintain."

For his part, Jeff Gordon blamed lacklustre pit stops for failing to convert most laps led into a dominant win on the night. "It felt like we had the car to beat; but you know what, we just didn't get the position that we needed to on that last pit stop." He added meaningfully: "Pit road is an interesting place here."

"Robbed at Indy, and robbed here. Yeah, I'm tired of it," said Gordon's crew chief Alan Gustafson. Their pit box was the first one on the backstretch on the uniquely cramped infield area at Bristol leading to problems with getting in and out while allowing other savvy drivers to be able to speed with impunity if they knew were and how."

But he had enjoyed that epic battle with Truex in the closing laps: "It was an incredible battle! I know that there wasn't much of a race up there for first when Brad got out there with those four tires and got clear of us, but me and Martin and Matt Kenseth and Jimmie, we were having a heck of a battle back there," he said. "We fought hard. That was just a great battle; a lot of fun racing, but just didn't quite have it there at the end."

As Gordon has said, there was no challenge to the leader for any of those final 80 laps, with Keselowski having played the proverbial blinder to put himself exactly where he needed to be and make the right moves at the right times. It's Keselowski's fourth Cup victory in his 77 series starts, having previously finished no better than 13th place on the short oval in the past. And he was thrilled to win the famous Bristol night race - so thrilled that he forgot all about the broken ankle and stood on the car roof to salute the fans. He remembered the ankle pretty darn quickly when he carelessly jumped down again, however.

"We were able to pass Martin Truex and the next thing I know, we're in victory lane spraying Miller Lite. This is really cool," he said. "I used to watch Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win this race. This is a race of champions! I can't believe it. There's races that pay more. There's races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all."

The coolest one of them all gives him three wins in 2011, the same as Kevin Harvick - only Kyle Busch has won more. That makes his progression to the Chase all but certain through the wildcard system, but his continued run of summer success also puts him just 21pts outside of the top ten and automatic qualification for the Chase: with two more races to go before the cut-off, it's not impossible that he'll qualify on merit and not even need the wildcard.

That opens up a whole new world of possibilities and theories about who will and won't make the Chase. If Keselowski breaks into the top ten it'll almost certainly be at the cost of crowd favourites Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart, neither of whom have any wins to fall back on for the wildcard, so the 12th spot would instead go to one of Paul Menard, David Ragan or Marcos Ambrose (who finished a strong 10th at Bristol to improve his chances) - who are within 4pts of each other in the standings, and also at the very cusp of wildcard eligibility with only Menard in the top 20.

The next two races should be no-holds-barred for those drivers with any Chase aspirations, and that should make it both exciting and unpredictable at Atlanta and Richmond over the next fortnight.

Full results and positions available.
Updated Sprint Cup championship points standings also available.


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