Prior to Sunday night’s (Sept. 2) Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway, Brad Keselowski had won just about everything except for NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
Keselowski won the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Sunday to finally check one of the sport’s most prestigious races off the list. Keselowski swept the weekend, winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the Lady in Black the day before.
“The Southern 500 has always been a major deal,” Keselowski said. “They’ve made it even bigger yet.”
The win is the 25th of Keselowski’s career and his first of 2018.
The No. 2 crew got their driver the lead over Kyle Larson on the final pit stop, and after a great restart with 19 to go, Keselowski cruised to the win.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my pit crew,” Keselowski said. “We were running second, and that last stop, they nailed it and got us out in the lead. Then it was all about me hitting my marks and not screwing it up.”
Joey Logano finished second to give Team Penske the one-two finish.
The win is Roger Penske’s first at Darlington since 1975 with Bobby Allison, and the victory came with Keselowski’s car adorning a Rusty Wallace throwback paint scheme.
“How cool is this winning in Rusty Wallace’s throwback car, the Southern 500, Throwback Weekend?” Keselowski said.
Keselowski only led 24 laps in the race. Larson was the class of the field, but lost it on the final restart.
“The whole race, I was praying for long runs,” Larson said. “I didn’t want to see those last couple cautions.”
Polesitter Denny Hamlin held the lead early, but Larson got around him on the outside on lap 12 and took off like a rocket.
Larson lapped up to the top 15 in the first stage, but lost his momentum when he caught Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher, who were battling side by side to stay on the lead lap. Larson made a daring move to the outside of the pair, but lifted after Dillon and Buescher made contact.
Larson caught up to Dillon again with a few laps to go in stage one and the two made contact exiting the corner. They avoided wrecking and Dillon and a few others stayed on the lead lap.
When a caution came out for Kyle Busch turning Joey Gase into the inside wall, Larson lost the lead to Martin Truex Jr and Harvick on pit stops. Truex took off on the restart, but Harvick tracked him down about 15 laps later and began stalking the defending champion.
Harvick unsuccessfully tried a few times to get around Truex, allowing Larson to catch them and soar around them both to reclaim the lead.
Truex, Keselowski and Logano tried to get the edge on Larson by short pitting. The move immediately backfired on Truex, as the No. 78 team was penalized for having an uncontrolled tire on the stop.
Larson nursed his way on the old tires to win another stage. He dove to the inside of Dillon right at the stage’s end to put the No. 3 one lap down, preventing Truex from getting the free pass. Truex ended the night in 11th.
Harvick was one of the ones that stayed out with Larson to finish the stage on old tires, but he was not as fortunate as Larson. The 2014 Cup champion’s car dropped like a rock and finished the second stage in 10th. Harvick never had the same speed but recovered to finish fourth at the end.
Like the previous run, Larson stayed out while others pitted and maintained the lead while putting around the track on old tires. This time, Larson had to pit under green and lost the lead to Logano, who had short pitted again, through the pit cycle.
It only took 18 laps for Larson to catch and pass Logano to move back to the top of the scoring pylon.
Larson had the race won until a caution came out after Jeffrey Earnhardt spun with 23 laps to go. Larson lost the lead to Keselowski on the final stop and didn’t have anything for either of the Team Penske cars on the final run, finishing in third.
“I’m really happy with the car they brought to the track this weekend,” Larson said. “I’m happy about it, just wish we could’ve gotten a win… [I] needed to be the control car on that restart.”
Larson led 284 of the 367 laps and won two stages. His race was reminiscent of Keselowski’s 2015 Southern 500 when the 2012 Cup champion won the pole and led 196 laps en route to a second place finish.
“I know how it goes. In 2015, we led a bunch of laps and lost it on the last pit stop, and today, my team won it on the last pit stop,” Keselowski said. “The 2015 one makes it all the sweeter.”
Keselowski said that Larson will win at Darlington one day.
Up next, the Cup Series goes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the regular season finale. The playoff field is set unless someone on the outside wins the Brickyard 400.
- A scary moment happened on lap 312. Clint Bowyer was maneuvering through the field with fresh tires at the same time Ryan Newman was trying to pit. Bowyer didn’t realize Newman was slowing down to pit and slammed into the back of the No. 31. The two then went hard into the wall and collected Jeffrey Earnhardt. Newman and Earnhardt continued, but it ended Bowyer’s day. No one was hurt in the incident.
- “I hit the 31 really hard,” Bowyer said. “I don’t know. I guess he was pitting or something, and it’s a product of this place, I guess… He just stopped right in front of me and I hit him hard.”