Pole sitter Brad Keselowski entered Pocono Raceway Monday with high expectations. He left it scratching his head at how a victory could have potentially slipped away via a NASCAR penalty.
The white No. 2 car led the field to green for the first time in 2016, and the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion was attempting to win his first race at the 2.5-mile track since his lone victory in August 2011.
However, Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Joey Logano had other ideas from the drop of the green flag. Logano, who is winless in 2016, took the lead from the get go. His No. 22 car paced the field for the first 17 circuits until Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth took away the top position from the 14-time Sprint Cup winner.
But the key moment for Keselowski came during a competition caution on lap 15. That’s when the No. 2 Ford came down pit road for what appeared to be a routine stop.
However, as Keselowski’s No. 2 pit crew changed tires on his car, one member was seen going shoulder-first into the door. NASCAR recognized the move as a body modification, alleging the crew member did it on purpose to give the car an aerodynamic advantage.
Keselowski was penalized, forced to come back down pit road after leading the field back onto the racetrack following the circuit’s first shot to add fuel to the cars.
“I don’t know what they saw, so it’s not really fair for me to say anything about that,” Keselowski told a group of reporters on pit road after the race. “I can tell you that every car I saw had body modifications on it after pit stops. I don’t know if ours was more egregious or even if we had one. Of course, it’s frustrating to come through from the back. We almost got back to the front, but came up just a little bit short.”
When the race went back to green flag conditions on Lap 20, Keselowski was forced to go down pit road again. This time, he was given a pass-through penalty for the alleged modifications according to the NASCAR rulebook.
From there, the heat was on to fight his way back through the pack. At least Keselowski’s No. 2 car was on a different fuel strategy after topping off his vehicle while his team attempted to fix the dent in his car. Only a handful of laps off sequence, he worked his way to 18th by the halfway mark.
Then, while the leaders attempted to save fuel in the closing laps during the final caution, Keselowski’s car was sent roaring to the checkered. Led by crew chief Paul Wolfe, he was able to go earn his fifth top-5 finish of 2016 and close within two seconds of the leaders by the checkered flag. Keselowski wound up third in Monday’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 but it took the entire race to get there.
“Every car I would pass, it would take 10-15 laps just being stuck in the wake,” Keselowski said. “That’s just part of it, I guess. All in all, a pretty decent weekend for us with the Miller Lite Ford and Team Penske. I’m proud of that effort to run up front and have another solid weekend. We’ve had a lot of those lately and it doesn’t go unnoticed by me.
“I’m really proud of my team for those efforts. We just want to keep it going. I want to turn them into wins, but, all in all, a lot to be proud of and we’ll keep on going.”
Keselowski later told ESPN he was frustrated by an in-race replay suggesting the team had incurred the same type of “hip-check” fix in Las Vegas, earlier this year only to make a mistake. Furious at Gordon, a former teammate when Keselowski raced for Hendrick several years ago, it’s clear the two will need to mend fences in the coming days.
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