BRISTOL, Tenn. — Brad Keselowski used Bristol Motor Speedway last fall to cement his spot in NASCAR’s championship race. Back at the track Sunday, Keselowski again made his way to Victory Lane. And he again began to think about a Sprint Cup title.
Keselowski led a career-best and race-high 232 laps, then held off Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth on a late restart to cruise to his first victory of the season.
“What can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me,” said Keselowski, who immediately began taking pictures in Victory Lane to send to Twitter.
“The goal at Penske Racing is to win a Sprint Cup championship, and one win certainly doesn’t achieve that, but it’s a great step.”
The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has a wild-card provisional for the winningest driver not otherwise eligible. Keselowski’s win at Bristol last August was his third of the season and gave him the provisional that allowed him to race for the title.
Now, just a month into the season, he’s focused on collecting victories.
“One win is good; two wins is really good,” Keselowski said. “We need to keep winning races to lock ourselves in the Chase, but heck, I’d rather just go into the Chase in the top spot. If we run like we have the last few weeks, we’ve got as good a shot as anybody else.”
Keselowski narrowly escaped an early seven-car accident, worked his way toward the front, then settled in for a tight battle with Kenseth over the final third of the race. Kenseth beat Keselowski on one of their restarts — fans complained instantly on Twitter that Kenseth had jumped the start — and Keselowski had to run him back down to reclaim the lead.
But a late caution when Tony Stewart hit the wall put Keselowski’s win in jeopardy.
“I’ve got no clue what to do here,” he radioed crew chief Paul Wolfe, who decided to leave Keselowski on the track and not bring him in to the pits under caution.
Then Keselowski had to decide which lane to choose for the final restart, and his decision to take the outside may have sealed the win.
“I knew as long as I could beat him on the first lap, I knew I had a good enough car and I’m a good enough driver to win,” Keselowski said. “Matt didn’t make it easy. That’s his job, to not make it easy on me. He raced me hard; I raced him hard, rubbed a little bit. That’s good racing.”
Kenseth settled for second in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
“He should have started on the bottom, for me; unfortunately he didn’t,” said Kenseth, who also denied jumping the earlier restart.
“I knew it was close, but here is the thing: When you get to the second line, they say that the race is on. I knew we took off a little early. … I am waiting for him. … I didn’t even floor it until we got to the start-finish line. I don’t know if he was trying to let me beat him on purpose or what was going on.”
Keselowski said judging the restarts was “too subjective” and that a no-call by NASCAR “was the right call.”
The three Toyotas from Michael Waltrip Racing capped an impressive day by rounding out the top five — a feat that marked a strong return to racing for Brian Vickers.
Martin Truex Jr. led the MWR contingent with a third-place finish and was followed by Bowyer and Vickers, who ran his first race of the season. Out of work since Red Bull Racing closed at the end of last season, Vickers was tabbed last week to run six of the races that MWR driver Mark Martin sits out this season.
He had a strong debut race, leading a career-high 125 laps. In 14 previous races at Bristol, Vickers had led only one lap, never finished in the top 10 and ended on the lead lap only four times.
“When it’s your only one, you have to make it count,” Vickers said. “This was pretty good and it felt really good when we were out there leading. It would have been awesome to hold onto that, but it’s the first time back so I can’t complain about that. What an organization.”
Truex said the showing, and Vickers’ ability to step into an MWR car and post a top-five finish after a layoff, show the strides the organization has made.
“Obviously it says a lot about the cars,” Truex said. “I think everybody knows that Brian is a good driver. He’s more than capable. I knew we had great race cars.”
Jeff Burton was sixth in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and was followed by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Jimmie Johnson finished ninth in what is likely his last race for some time with crew chief Chad Knaus. Hendrick Motorsports goes before NASCAR’s chief appellate officer Tuesday, trying to get Knaus’ six-race suspension overturned. NASCAR punished Knaus and the team because their Chevrolet failed the opening day inspection at last month’s Daytona 500.
Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick finished 10th and 11th to give RCR three cars in the top 11. Harvick managed to pull off the finish despite damage sustained in a seven-car accident 24 laps into the race.
The accident was caused when Kasey Kahne ran into Regan Smith after passing him, and it continued the horrendous start to the season Kahne is having with Hendrick Motorsports. He finished 37th, and through four races Kahne is 32nd in points.
“This is the worst way I could start a season,” Kahne said. “I hate it for everybody. It’s really disappointing and discouraging to have as fast of race cars as I have and not have nothing to show for.”