SPARTA, Ky. — Martin Truex Jr. had the fastest car and Kevin Harvick led the most laps. Yet Brad Keselowski found himself celebrating in Victory Lane at the end of a crash-strewn Quaker State 400 at newly repaved Kentucky Speedway.
Keselowski took the lead on the final restart, then stretched his fuel to the absolute limit while his strongest competition all had to stop and top off. Carl Edwards came closest, reaching the rear bumper of the Team Penske Ford in Turn 2 on the final lap as Keselowski slowed almost to a crawl.
But Keselowski placed his block to perfection, and he had just enough Sunoco E15 left in the tank for enough of a burst of speed to keep him ahead of Edwards’ Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the rest of the lap. He crossed the line 0.175 seconds ahead for his series-leading fourth race win of the season and second in the past seven days.
Keselowski becomes first to win 3 at Kentucky
Brad Keselowski became the first three-time winner at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night, holding on to pick up his second straight Sprint Cup victory.
“I don’t know, I guess every squirrel finds a nut, no matter how blind he is,” Keselowski said. “We’re glad to put the Miller Lite Ford in Victory Lane two weeks in a row and it was a great team effort. I don’t think we had the best car; I think probably the 78 [Truex] was.
“But my guys didn’t give up. They gave me a great effort and we made the most of it.”
Keselowski looked to have about a fifth-place car for the first three-quarters of the 267-lap contest. But his Ford was particularly hooked up on restarts, one of the few opportunities for passing on the green racetrack.
Once in front, crew chief Paul Wolfe encouraged Keselowski to save fuel, but advised him that the No. 2 team’s strategy could be dictated by how the competition raced.
They caught a huge break in the form of a critical penalty for Truex, who was cited for passing on entry into the pit lane with 90 laps remaining.
The pass-through penalty dropped the Furniture Row Racing Toyota to 22nd place, but Truex made a brilliant charge through the field all the way to third place before he pitted for fuel with 10 laps to go. Truex ultimately finished 10th.
“All you can do when something like that happens is keep your head down and dig,” Truex said. “Just one of those deals and I’m not sure why we were penalized. It’s a timing line thing and everyone does it. We came out of that stop with the lead and they took it away from us.
“Just wasn’t my night on that deal, which is frustrating, because I think we had the car to beat.”
Edwards was some nine seconds behind Keselowski with two laps to go, but Keselowski judged his dwindling fuel supply to perfection. His only failure was not saving enough gas to execute a solid burnout.
“I thought I had him, but he played it perfectly,” Edwards said. “He won at the absolute slowest possible speed he could. I thought he was out of fuel and that was that. Just wasn’t meant to be.
“It’s a tough one to be that close. He did a good job and he beat us.”
After a subpar 2015 season in which he scored just one win, Keselowski and the No. 2 team have established themselves in the past few weeks as a genuine championship threat.
Harvick, the Sprint Cup Series points leader, paced 128 laps Saturday night but faded to ninth place at the flag.
Along with Joey Logano‘s victory at Michigan in June, Team Penske has now swept both races using NASCAR’s extra-low downforce package. And Keselowski believes his season will only get stronger.
“The fuel mileage in this Ford was good enough to make up for some of my mistakes tonight,” Keselowski said. “We didn’t have the fastest car or the raw speed, but restarts and fuel mileage put us here in the end.
“This is our best stretch and I’m really, really proud of that,” he added. “We’ve got to keep it going through the fall, because that’s really important. But this is great.”
The repaved and reprofiled Kentucky proved to be a tough opponent, with a record-tying 11 cautions. A dozen drivers were involved in some sort of contact throughout the evening, with rookie Chase contenders Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott the most high-profile victims.
But the big story was Keselowski, who seemed to magically steal this victory from Harvick and Truex.
“Usually these repaves are kind of my Achilles’ heel, but it feels good to get another win here at Kentucky,” Keselowski said. “I know it’s been a good track for us in the past [this was his third career Cup win there], but this isn’t the same Kentucky, I can tell you that. These cars were tough to drive today, but a good tough.
“This was a hard-fought battle and I’m really proud of everybody on the 2 crew to get win No. 4 and take that first place.”