Friday night (Feb. 22), Brad Keselowski got sick, bedridden with the flu. Two days later, it was the rest of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field down for the count. The 2019 Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway became an honorable drive for a champion who couldn’t even practice the day before.
In a performance similar to NBA legend Michael Jordan’s infamous “Flu Game” in the 1997 NBA Finals, Keselowski called off sub Austin Cindric, then got stronger as the race went on and fended off Martin Truex Jr. for his second Atlanta win in three years. Nursing his car at the finish as both Team Penske teammates developed tire problems, Keselowski kept control of the race and had just enough to stick it out.
“Good enough to get the job done,” Keselowski said afterwards. “My wife took great care of me along with everyone in the care center. This is one I’m not going to forget for a very long time.”
Keselowski is now the all-time winningest driver at Team Penske, breaking a tie with Mark Donohue. He’s got 60 career wins in NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity series with the program.
“What a tremendous day. I don’t even know how to put it in words,” he said. “First race with the new rules, that’s really special as well. I know everyone here is really excited as well.”
Truex knew he had a missed opportunity for a win in just his second start with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Truex found himself stuck in traffic after a bizarre pit road incident caused the fifth and final caution. Ryan Preece and BJ McLeod made contact in the middle of green flag pit stops. The crash ruined the rookie Preece’s day, smashed up his No. 47 and also McLeod’s No. 52 while causing running order chaos.
Ryan Preece looked down at his tachometer and this happened. pic.twitter.com/wXYm5EozSX
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 24, 2019
“Just trying to make sure I wasn’t speeding,” Preece said. “When I looked up, the [No. 52] was coming in the pits. Just a mistake. What are you going to do.”
It also gave Keselowski a break. He was just one of three cars who didn’t need the wave-around, earning the free pass after the team removed a piece of debris on his stop that was overheating the engine. Ahead of him, teammate Joey Logano and Kurt Busch hadn’t stopped at the time of the caution. It took several laps for NASCAR to sort out the field behind them and then, when they did, many of the lead-lap cars were forced to start behind lapped traffic.
“It was a shame we got put in position on that last restart,” Truex said. “That’s the way the cautions fell. I could taste that one. I really wanted that first Atlanta win.”
He closed the gap from two seconds down to a few car lengths heading into the white-flag lap. But it ultimately wasn’t enough as Keselowski had assumed control.
It was a tougher day for Truex then you might expect for a second-place finisher. He complained about lapped traffic and had a controversial pit penalty pulled by NASCAR late that would have kept him a lap down.
“These cars are just so bad in dirty air,” he said. “[Ricky Stenhouse Jr.] was holding me up pretty bad. I got to the No. 2 car in two laps. I just needed one more.”
“Ganassi’s got the right stuff,” Busch said. “We caught a good break to get on the lead lap with Logano and be in the top five in the end. It’s a good third-place finish. We’ll take it.”
Logano was in position to run top five as well but late-race tire issues left him 23rd. Teammate Ryan Blaney could do just one spot better as he also had an unscheduled stop in the final laps.
That bad luck was a pattern for a long list of contenders up front. Aric Almirola led early but got a speeding penalty at the end of stage one and never recovered. Kyle Larson led the most laps, 142, but also suffered through pit road speeding. Rookie Daniel Hemric had a pit road spin and then a late-race unscheduled stop after charging to fifth; Kyle Busch had a flat right-rear tire, causing a caution before charging to sixth.
“I got in the fence just a little bit, center of [turns] 1 and 2, just touched it,” Busch said. “Overall, it must have rubbed it, cut it down. Fortunately, we got a caution there. We were battling and running the wall all day. Doing that, you run into opportunities to get yourself in trouble. Salvaged a decent day, I guess.”
The racing at Atlanta provided mixed reviews as drivers struggled to pass at times under the new package. The field was closer together than last year’s race – 17 cars wound up on the lead lap – but seemed to stall out in traffic. At the same time, there were several extended battles for the lead, from Larson and Harvick early on to Keselowski and Truex in the final laps.
“It’s different,” Bowyer said. “It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure.”