Brad Keselowski was making himself at home again in victory lane for the third time in 2012 and the first time at Kentucky Speedway, where he brushed aside nationwide heatwaves and hot-headed spats on Friday with Juan Montoya to clinch the win in the Saturday evening Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Keselowski praised his Penske Racing team for their work on Friday, after his clash with Montoya early in practice had seen him put his primary race car into the wall.
"They put together a backup car from last year in 100-degree heat in an hour's time," he marvelled. "Got it on the race track and got to run our laps for practice to make the adjustments we needed to be fast today. That's what badasses do, and that's what got us to victory lane today. I'm proud of these guys for it, damn proud of them."
Far from thinking that his driver had won despite
Friday's adversity, crew chief Paul Wolfe was of a mind that Keselowski simply seemed able to find a whole new level of racing when as worked up as he had been by the Montoya incident.
"There are definitely a lot of instances where I've seen Brad be able to find speed in the race car when he is ticked off. Whether or not he's doing it, it seems like it happens," said Wolfe. "Bad Brad was back this weekend - and I don't know whether that's good or bad!"
While Jimmie Johnson had won pole position on Friday, it was the man alongside him on the front row - Kyle Busch - who leapt into the lead for the first 33 laps once the green flag came out, but further back Keselowski was quickly seeing off Kevin Harvick for fifth place and then sliding under Ryan Newman for fourth. Then it was past Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin to slide into second place, and his declaration of intent for the evening was well and truly made.
With Busch complaining of his car being loose, it was just a matter of time before Keselowski took the lead for the first time on lap 34. A few minutes later the first caution of the steamy evening came out when Scott Riggs' #23 car came to a halt out on track after having been off the pace for most of the race to that point.
He wasn't the only one having troubles, with the temperatures only now starting to fall away from the 100 degrees Fahrenheit mark. Joey Logano was having the one thing no driver wants in those circumstances, trouble with his cooling unit - "My A/C broke on lap 20, so I didn't have a fan or anything. Just really, really hot," he said - but it was Tony Stewart who was really having a bad start to the night as the #14 limped into pit lane for emergency repairs to the throttle ignition that put him multiple laps down and ultimately left him classified in a dismal 32nd place.
After the first round of pit stops under caution, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson once again lined up at the front, and once again Busch took off in front while Keselowski snatched back second place and gave chase. Further back, Kasey Kahne suddenly dived back into pit lane for new tyres after reporting a vibration, which seemed to have put paid to any chances of success for the Hendrick driver this evening.
It remained Busch/Keselowski/Johnson ahead of Denny Hamlin even after the next round of green flag pit stops just before the 100 lap mark, but then Keselowski turned up the heat on Busch and on lap 119 Busch slapped the wall out of turn 2. He was able to keep going, and a debris caution a few minutes later meant that Keselowski wasn't quite able to press home his advantage just yet.
Denny Hamlin - who just prior to the race had tweeted that he had successfully sealed a contract extension deal at Joe Gibbs Racing, which hadn't been up until the end of 2013 in any case - was able to get the jump over his team mate Kyle Busch for the lead. Buch battled for second place with Johnson for a few laps but was clearly not as strong as he had been and had to settle for third ahead of Keselowski.
A blown engine for Dave Blaney on lap 150 brought out the third caution of the evening and triggered more pit stops, after which the race resumed with the top four unchanged and Martin Truex Jr. having passed Clint Bowyer for fifth just before the yellow flags. Bowyer had fallen to tenth for the restart and then been the innocent bystander when Joey Logano and Ryan Newman had made contact, which had left Bowyer on the receiving end and having to pit the #15 on lap 170 for new tyres and repairs that put him two laps down.
"Just got hit from behind and knocked in my quarter panel and made me really, really loose for a few laps," said Logano.
"He lost control in the middle of three and four," insisted Newman of the incident from his vantage point. "I got into the back of him on accident, but I mean that is part of it. He lost control in the first place, I went to go drive around the outside of him and I don't know if he was half ways blocked me or what. It just about spun him around into the #15 and I guess if the #15 wasn't there it would have."
At the front, Hamlin was still firmly in charge but as the laps remaining ticked below one hundred to go he was getting messages from pit lane to start thinking about fuel saving strategies. He was not alone. A new round of green flag pit stops commenced soon after lap 200, but then the game plan changed when Ryan Newman blew his engine and spun on lap 210, hitting the wall in turns 1 and 2.
"Just something blew up, that was the bottom end of the motor," shrugged Newman. "It was going to be a decent night, maybe not a great night points wise. Points wise maybe a good night, but not a great night for a top five. Something on the bottom end of the motor of the Tornados Chevrolet."
Regan Smith was also in the wrong place at the wrong time, hitting the oil slick laid down from the blown Chevrolet.
"I was right there with him," said Smith. "I saw it, but there is not much you can do. I went sideways as soon as I hit the oil. It was unfortunate because we had a good car. In fact, we were getting better on every run and I truly felt we had a good shot at a top ten."
Ironically, Newman's wreck proved good news for former Cup points leader Greg Biffle: having already got one of his laps back during the green flag pit stop cycle, Biffle had been the highest-placed car off the lead lap when Newman hit the wall and duly got the wave-around, enabling him to get back on the lead lap, although he would drop off again before the end and would finish in a damage limitation 21st.
Two of the former race leaders now hit problems: even before the caution, Kyle Busch had been very slow on the race track and reported that something had broken on the #18, possibly a shock absorber as a result of that earlier hit with the wall.
"We salvaged a heck of a finish for what all we had to go through," reported Busch after the race. "Definitely not any fun to drive, but had to do what we could on three pogo sticks."
Jimmie Johnson hit problems after the green came out again, losing a lot of ground fearing that he must be having a tyre going down on him: "I really think that on that restart I got in some oil or the track was still slick from that stay dry being down," he mused later with the benefit of hindsight. "I got loose a couple of times, lost a bunch of track position.
"From there I really think it was just track position deal," he explained, of why the #48 suddenly seemed to lack the pace it had shown all weekend up to that point. "I think that they have taken a lot of downforce out of the cars with the new rules. You just get to a spot and stall out ... Certainly up front in clean air that thing was blistering fast [but] I got back in traffic and just couldn't go anywhere."
That left Keselowski at the front ahead of Denny Hamlin, with Carl Edwards initially in third place but having to drive under a severe fuel conservation strategy that made him easy prey for Kasey Kahne to pass on lap 258 and complete his own recovery from that early unscheduled pit stop. In fact, Kahne's pace was so ferocious now compared to those around him that four laps later he slid under a conservative Hamlin for second place as well with just five laps to go until the finish.
"We got a lap behind there with the loose right front, and then we had another slow stop later," said Kahne. "But my car was fast, and I think the longer the run went, the better we seemed to get - the better I could move around on the racetrack, anyways.
"I had to run the bottom, and as soon as I'd get off the bottom I'd just slide, a four wheel slide," he recalled. "I couldn't make it work. I kept trying outside, but later on I was able to make a little speed on the outside corners, both ends, and could still run the bottom pretty well. But for probably the first half of the run, I had to be on the bottom."
Kahne did what he could and closed Keselowski's margin at the front to under four seconds, but it was too late. Without the opportunity of a late caution or a green-white-chequered finish, Keselowski had it in the back and duly crossed the finish line in first place ahead of Kahne and Hamlin after nearly three hours of superheated racing.
"We had to pass a ton of cars and came up a little short, but the team was awesome," said Kahne. "It would have been great to win in the Quaker State car."
Although he described losing a place near the end as "kind of anticlimactic", Hamlin was clearly feeling happy enough - not just with a hard-won third place but also with having locked down his immediate future at JGR. "When you know you're locked in and know where you're going to race for a really long time ... it's a good feeling," he said.
Edwards' aggressive fuel-saving strategy ultimately backfired and saw him drop to 20th place a lap down after a splash-and-dash four laps from the end.
"I am definitely frustrated with how it played out," said Edwards, revealing that the fuel strategy had actually been an accident in the first place when the all to come in from crew chief Bob Osborne came too late. "Bob called me onto pit road. He knew we should have pitted that last time, but I was already so far around that [pit entry] cone that I just didn't feel right cutting across traffic and slamming the splitter down to make it to pit road."
"The problem was I called him down pit road too late and he missed pit road," said Osborne, as frustrated as his driver after the two had words following the race finish. "At that point, we looked at our options and decided to take our chance on a caution, and the caution didn't come. We just ran it to the end and did a splash-and-go when the caution didn't come. It just didn't go our way. We didn't get the job done."
The result leaves Edwards on the wrong side of the post-season Chase cut-off line with time running out. He had no wins to fall back on, and hasn't even finished in the top ten once in June. That's quite a slump for the driver who tied the Tony Stewart on points last year for the Cup championship.
In terms of his own title hopes, Keselowski might only be one spot ahead of Edwards in tenth place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings and therefore technically 'on the bubble', but his third win of the season means that - much like last year - he's now virtually assured a spot in the Chase via the 'wins wild card' system at the very least.
"Now we can look forward," Keselowski said of that position. "We don't have to look back at all, and that's so big."
Matt Kenseth continues to lead the series with nine races to go before the Chase cut-off. His margin is 11pts with Dale Earnhardt Jr. having moved up to second place with Jimmie Johnson in third, after a poor finish for former points leader Greg Biffle saw him tumble two spots to fourth.
After their second and third place finishes at Kentucky, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin are the biggest gainers near the top of the points with jumps of three places each to 14th and fifth positions respectively, while Tony Stewart's technical gremlins drop the reigning Cup champion four places to ninth.Full race results
and championship standings