Brad Keselowski did not lead the most laps and did not have the fastest car … but he was still the one sitting in Victory Lane at Saturday night’s end at Kentucky Speedway.
A call by crew chief Paul Wolfe to try and stretch the fuel mileage wound up paying off as Keselowski coasted to the finish line just ahead of Carl Edwards. He was so close on fuel that he didn’t even have enough fuel to do a burnout.
Kevin Harvick led the most laps with 128 of 267 laps and finished ninth. Martin Truex, Jr. had one of the strongest cars all night, but a late pit road penalty mired Truex back in the pack. While Truex was able to work his way up to third, he was never able to make it back to the lead and ultimately finished 10th.
“We weren’t the best car tonight,” Keselowski said post-race. “That’s for sure. The 78 car, he was really good. I thought the 4 car looked really good, 19, 20, 18 looked really good. We seemed to kind of hover right in that fifth-to-eighth-place range, and we came down pit road fifth with 72 to go, 73 to go, and left pit road fifth. I thought, well, you know, who knows how these things are going to go but then the 78 got the penalty, moved us into the outside line on the restart, which I think we saw all night was the preferred line.
“I was able to clear the two inside cars. I don’t remember who they were, and get into Turn 3 behind Kevin and I was about half a car width back, which, I had a pretty good idea that if I could stay within a half a car length of him that I could create an aero wake behind his car and loosen him up a little bit without touching him, and sure enough, we went down in the corner and it looked like he got really loose and I was able to make the move and get by him.”
The fuel situation was rather dire. Keselowski radioed to his crew with just two laps left that he was out of fuel, but was still able to continue racing and hold off a late charge from Edwards. There was some question as to whether or not Keselowski was actually out of fuel or playing mind games over the radio, but he denied that post-race, saying that the car was sputtering so badly that he thought for sure he must be out.
“I knew we were way short of being able to make it, so I got as aggressive as I could, and somehow we made it,” Keselowski said. “I’m not even sure you can really say we made it because we ran out with about two to go, and it was — by running out, I mean it stumbled really, really bad, and I was able to just somehow limp it around the last two laps and stay ahead of Carl and bring her home.”
This race featured a new tire from Goodyear, a continuation of the lower downforce package that NASCAR has experimented with this season, and a repaved and reconfigured Kentucky Speedway. Those three aspects combined for some tough challenges for the drivers. The 11 yellow flags that flew tied the track record, and while passing was difficult, drivers still had to finesse their way around the track.
“I would also say that the cars are — the new rules package makes them harder to drive and requires a lot more precision as a race car driver, and I can appreciate that about the race,” continued Keselowski. “We’re still facing and fighting the same dilemmas in our sport of the lead car having a significant advantage over other cars in the field, but that advantage seemed to go from maybe on a 1 to 10 scale, from an 8 to a 6 or a 7 here, which I think is good, but until the track widens out and gets multiple grooves, I honestly think this is the best race you’re going to see on a repave.”
Had all of those circumstances not been at play, the driver of the No. 2 car certainly doesn’t seem to think that they would have wound up in Victory Lane for the second week in a row (Keselowski won last weekend in Daytona too).
“Without the lower, lower downforce package today, I don’t think I would have won the race,” said Keselowski. “I would have never made the move I made on the 4 car, and that would have been it. There were certainly moves you could make today that you couldn’t make before with respect to getting behind somebody and being able to alter the way their car drove, and that’s a part of being a race car driver. That’s a part of this package.”
Keselowski’s win at Kentucky puts the team at four victories this season, a series high after 18 races in 2016. The multiple victories have clinched the No. 2 team a spot the Chase with only eight races remaining in the regular season.