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.