It's been nearly a year since Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Sprint Cup title, and longer than that since he's visited victory lane in the series. While there's nothing he can do now about retaining the championship in 2013, he has at least been able to take care of the other pressing matter and on Saturday night was celebrating at Charlotte Motor Speedway after a late charge to the front in the Bank of America 500.
Which was very surprising, and it was clear from early on that this weekend's floodlit race was intended to be a Hendrick Motorsports event. From Jeff Gordon claiming pole position, to the fact that one or other member of the four-driver line-up led for a sum total of 313 of the 334 laps, there really was no other just outcome that the winner should be either Gordon, or Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Kasey Kahne, or else Jimmie Johnson. But life isn't fair and sports doubly not, so in the event it wasn't any of those names that triumphed.
It started off well enough for the Hendrick squad, Gordon having no trouble leading for the first 26 laps, Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick maintaining second place through to lap 20 when Jimmie Johnson arrived to take the burden off him., shortly before the first caution of the night for JJ Yeley's wounded car limping back to pit lane after making contact with the retaining wall at turn 1. Gordon opted to take four tyres in the ensuing pit stops while many around him took just two meaning that the #24 dropped down to eighth, and at the restart it was over to his team mates Kahne, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. to lead the field to green.
Kahne and Earnhardt had a fun time playing pass-the-lead between themselves over the next phase of the race at least until some debris blocked the #88's front grille and forced Earnhardt to lift off until it was cleared for fear of overheating the engine. That took them to a round of green flag stops just after lap 70, which allowed Johnson, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch to make single-lap guest appearances in the lead and pick up a bonus point in the process before Kahne returned to take charge again, just in time for the second caution of the night for Mark Martin's engine blowing up in the #14 and leaving oil on the track.
"We broke a valve spring and went down on seven cylinders and it ran along there for a little while before it self-destructed," Martin explained. "We tried to nurse it along to maybe catch a caution where we could possibly work on it a little bit, but we didn't get that.
"When you run with a broken valve spring, a lot of times you wind up failing something else. Sometimes you can run all day with a broken valve spring, but a lot of times it self-destructs, and that was the case tonight."
Even though they had just been in, many cars pitted a second time under the caution - although Brad Keselowski was likely wishing he hadn't bothered, after he left with the jack still wedged under the side of the car, requiring him to make a full revolution of the 1.5-mile circuit before coming back onto pit road to have it removed and then being handed a penalty for removing equipment from the pit box. "I thought when I saw the jack under the car, I thought here we go again, not a good night," Keselowski said later - an understandable feeling after being forced to take the restart from the back of the field.
Earnhardt briefly held a slender lead over Kahne at the restart, but five laps into the run and normality was restored as Kahne once again settled into a comfortable run at the front, pulling out more than two seconds over his team mates before the next round of green flag pit stops broke out on lap 128. Kenseth, Bowyer and Keselowski were among those to clinch their bonus points for leading a lap as the stops cycled through, and then it was Kahne back on point all the way past the midpoint of the race and through to the third caution of the night on lap 172 for debris in turn 3.
Kahne, Johnson and Gordon won the race off pit road with Kyle Busch the cuckoo in the next in fourth ahead of Earnhardt, and Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman continuing strong runs to remain in the top six for the restart on lap 178. This time Kahne didn't have things under control, and instead it was Johnson's turn to come on strong and snatch the lead for his first sustained run of the night. And by sustained, we mean sustained: with the exception of one lap during a pit stop sequence, he stayed out in front for the next 129 laps.
With less than 30 laps remaining and Johnson with a comfortable 1.4 second lead over Kahne it seemed that the night was all over bar the prize-giving, and it was hard to begrudge the prospect of Johnson claiming the win given such a dominant performance in the latter half of the proceedings. It looked set to allow him to take the points lead in the Chase from Matt Kenseth, who was running strongly enough himself in fourth place behind his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch, and ahead of Keselowski, Gordon, Newman and Bowyer as the laps ticked down.
But Johnson's parade to the chequered flag was thwarted by a debris caution on lap 308, and now it became a test of the team's decision-making prowess when it came to the strategy to employ for the final round of pit stops. Normally there's few better at this sort of thing than Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus, and they opted for the safety-first approach of four tyres to ensure that they didn't get caught out on old rubber and get overwhelmed at the green flag. In a case of the Hendrick squad hedging their bets, Kahne and Gordon went for two-tyres only and duly took the restart at the front, slotting Johnson into third place ahead of other four-tyre takers Kenseth, Busch and Keselowski.
It might have been the safe bet, but it wasn't fool-proof: as the race got back underway and Kahne proved that two-tyres was no handicap at this stage of the proceedings by leaping away from Gordon at the front, the #48 bobbled and Johnson had to fight to save the car - and in the process dropped back to seventh place at precisely the most crucial moment in the entire race.
"Down in one and two just in the dirty air I pushed the #5 off into one," Johnson explained after the race. "He didn't get the best restart and something to do with that combo got me off the bottom and a couple of cars got into the side of me. If we could have come out second which was really close with the #24 and start on the front row I think it would have been a much different result for us, but it didn't happen."
He quickly had the car under control again and started recovering some of that lost ground, but overtaking at Charlotte isn't easy at the best of times and certainly not when the clock is counting down with just minutes remaining. He simply didn't have the time necessary to get back to the front, so that despite leading for 130 laps he wasn't going to lead the only one that truly mattered - the one with a chequered flag attached. But still it seemed that the Hendrick team had the race as a whole under control as a squad: Johnson might have faltered, and Earnhardt might have waned and gone a lap down in the lengthy green flag run between debris cautions, but Kahne and Gordon still had things under control didn't they? Well, maybe not Gordon, who was soon showing the downside of sticking to a two-tyre strategy - but certainly Kahne, who seemed immune to such wear and tear. And who else was there to challenge him, when all was said and done?
Championship front-runner Matt Kenseth thought he'd like to give it a try, and leapt into second place; but Brad Keselowski had similar designs, and in the head-to-head between the #20 and the #2 it was the Penske car that came out on top to seize second on lap 318 and lead the attack on the race leader.
"I felt like I got a good restart there on that last one," said Kenseth afterwards. "Great job by my team: they had a great pit stop, did everything right and put me in position to try to win the race and at the end I couldn't get it done. I feel bad about that. I had the best tyres and I let Brad get me and just couldn't hang on."
While Keselowski had the advantage of the fresher rubber, that didn't mean Kahne was a sitting duck. On the contrary, even though Keselowski soon closed the lap to the leader, Kahne made it almost impossible for him to get by or make the pass stick without catching Keselowski out with a crossover move to instantly take the lead back again. Finally Keselowski got in front and managed to ward off Kahne's counter attacks, with with nine laps to go the Penske car was finally in clear air and set for its first appearance in victory lane for 37 races - just over a year since Dover in October 2012.
"I love hard racing and there are a handful of guys you can't race hard with in this deal because they freak out, but Kasey is not one of them," said Keselowski. "He's an excellent driver and he ran me hard, but he ran me clean and that's great racing. I'm proud to race with him. He did a helluva job and deserves a lot of credit for it, but, at the end of the day, the Miller Lite Ford Fusion was just fast and we persevered."
“Yeah, we had a great race," responded Kahne. "I was on two and he was on four and he could just move around a little bit better. I was trying to move around, but I was just a little bit on the tight side with the front end, then I would get loose if I got the front working. I was doing all I could and felt pretty good, but he made some nice moves and just really had some speed there late in the race and was able to get by me."
"I'd say this is a pretty good night for us," contributed Keselowski's team owner, Roger Penske. "Brad, you don't realize that every driver in our stable now has won a race this year," he added, mentioning the names of AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney, Sam Hornish Jr. and Joey Logano along with IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Helio Castroneves and Will Power as examples of other Penske drivers to have hit success in 2013. With Keselowski finally claiming a win of his own as well, the set is complete and the boss is a happy man.
Even more significantly, Keselowski's win is the first time that a non-Chase contender has been to victory lane during the post-season championship playoffs (Kahne himself was the last to achieve that when he won at Phoenix International Raceway in the penultimate race of 2011.) But that's not to say that the events of the last 30 laps didn't also have ripple effects on this year's Chase battle.
For one thing, Kahne's stubbornness in trying to repel Keselowski's attack ended up pushing his tally of laps in the front to 138, so that he took the bonus point for most laps led from Johnson whose final count was a mere 130. Further, the debris caution and his poor restart left Johnson crossing the finish line in fourth place behind Kenseth, his chief rival at this point of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title battle. Combined, that means that Kenseth retains his lead in the standings and has even increased it by one point to four points in total - not a big gap, but a psychologically important one for Kenseth to hold onto over the formidable five-time champion at the halfway point of the Chase.
"At the end of the day, [the final caution] probably helped us because the #48 was going to win without the caution and we ended up finishing in front of him," agreed Kenseth afterwards. "For where we started and how we were the first two runs of the race, I thought my whole team did an incredible job. I was happy where we ran, happy where we finished."
"Being greedy, of course you want to win, and you go out and do everything you can do, and I couldn't get it done," Kenseth added. "[But] I think that we were going to finish third without the caution. We were third or fourth and catching the #18 and think we would have finished there without the caution [so] I guess we finished in the same spot. But looking at the points, it's probably better this way."
Kyle Busch came home in fifth place, and considering that at one point late in the race he radioed to his pit crew that "[The engine] is acting like it's out of fuel, but I'm sure it's blowing up," you'd think he would be content with a strong finish. But with both Kenseth and Johnson finishing ahead of him, it just means he's lost more ground to the Chase front-runners at a track that he should have been able to turn to his advantage.
"It's good to finish top five but it certainly stinks," Busch said. “They say you need top-fives to win a championship, but when you're getting beat by the guys in front of you then we're not good enough flat out ... It's frustrating, but you know I should be happy with a fifth but we're not. I'm not.
"We're not good enough. It's frustrating, man. I'm beating myself up every week trying to figure out what I've got to do to be better, and I don't know what it is," he continued. "I work hard through practice, I work hard through the week, I study film, I do everything I need to do but it's not paying off."
Unlike Kenseth, for Busch the final caution hadn't been a welcome development: “We would have made up some points on some guys [without it]," he said. “Instead we got beat by all the guys that we're racing, essentially ... We need to win races, and we're not capable of doing that right now."
In fact the relatively straightforward and uneventful race this weekend means that there are few major developments in the Chase standings this week, and Busch loses just two points on his team mate Matt Kenseth while the top seven positions in the Chase as a whole are unchanged coming out of Charlotte. Kevin Harvick remains in third place in the standings after finishing just behind Busch in sixth place, and Jeff Gordon made it home in seventh ahead of Ryan Newman despite the mixed success of his two-tyre gambit, meaning he stays just ahead of Busch in the championship positions.
"We struggled with the handling of our car all night," admitted Harvick. "It's a miracle that we were able to pull off a sixth-place finish. I am just really proud of this team right now."
"It was a solid effort - it was a great call there to try to make two work, our car was just way too tight to be able to do it. We lost a few more positions than I was hoping but it was still solid," Gordon said, pleased to still be in with a shot of the title at the midway point of the play-offs.
"I'm pretty impressed with that, to be honest," he agreed. "We've got to be realistic and while we've been really strong ever since the Chase started, we also came into this thing barely making it in and one week we probably weren't in it and then the next week we're in it and then we came from 13th to where we are. I'm very proud of that and I'm not going to let this get us down, but I also feel like we've been knocking on the door to get a win and that's what we're trying to do."
Will that win come next week when the Sprint Cup field heads to Talladega? The famed and feared 2.66-mile superspeedway with its restrictor plate racing is considered the one true wild card of the ten-race Chase run, one that can really shake things up and make or break a championship campaign. Get it right and the potential pay-off is huge, but get it wrong and stuff the car into the wall and it could be game over for 2013.
"I don't know if anybody is looking forward to Talladega but it's part of it," sighed Gordon. "And you've got to go in there with a positive attitude and fight and do your best and try to avoid whatever may occur there or what's going to occur there and hope that you come out with a race car.
"It doesn't even have to be in one piece, it just needs to get across the line with a decent finish," he added, steeling himself for what awaits in just one week's time.Full race results
, an interview with race winner Brad Keselowski
, and the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings