KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The rear of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford was like the gnawed end of a turkey leg, its skin twisted and frayed in several unpleasant directions, exposing the skeleton beneath. It was if a Tyrannosaurus rex had wandered into Kansas Speedway and taken a big ol’ chunk out of Brad Keselowski’s backside.
“Yeah,” Walter Czarnecki, vice chairman of Penske Racing, chuckled as the four-wheeled mess got wheeled away. “With both jaws.”
And some days, sixth place feels like a victory, thanks very much. Crew on double-secret probation. Chattering cars. Dirty air. Hard tires. Shifting winds. Rear-left quarter panel dangling off the body. Much of the afternoon, it felt like trying to keep one of those old-school Radio Flyer wagons upright.
“Usually you’re not happy unless you win,” Keselowski said after rallying for a top-10 finish at Sunday’s STP 400. “But a day where you can fight through adversity like we did … and get a solid finish, that kind of is a win, yes.”
Solid and surreal, a bizarre end to a bizarre week for the 29-year-old driver, one of the jewels of the Penske Racing crown.
Tuesday, Keselowski was parked on the South Lawn of the White House, shaking hands with President Obama. On Wednesday, NASCAR came down hard on Penske, slapping six-race suspensions on seven total members of Keselowski’s and teammate Joey Logano’s crews for the use of unapproved rear-end housings at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, levying $200,000 in fines. The drivers also got points docked, bumping Keselowski at the start of the weekend from second to fourth and Logano from ninth to 14th.
“Yeah, I’m ready to go home,” Logano cracked after his front end was crushed like a Styrofoam cup after colliding with a spinning Kyle Busch on Lap 102. “That was about as tough of a weekend as you’re going to have, from the track side to this side. It’s a tough weekend.”
Sunday was especially tough on Keselowski’s ride, right from the get-go. After starting 33rd, the No. 2 Ford got rear-ended early on while trying to avoid a pile-up, forcing the crew — which is appealing its suspensions and worked the race — to recover from a lap down.
With a lot of tape and a little ingenuity, the team made up that ground, bit by bit. With 237 laps to go in the 267-lap race, Keselowski was 42nd. With 152 laps to go, he was 25th. With 132 laps to go, he’d worked his way up to second.
But over the final quarter of the race, the tape that had been used on pit row to patch the earlier damage was beginning to fly off. And before long, parts of Keselowski’s rear-bumper cover were flying off, too.
“Eventually the dirty air of cars being around me just sucked it apart,” Keselowski said. “It’s kind of weird. I think that’s probably a really good aero lesson for everybody how dirty the air is that when another car gets beside us it literally blew the quarter panel off of it, so it’s just part of the deal.”
“Brad said it was like a parachute in the back of the car,” Czarnecki added. “That piece (that) was sticking out, he said it was like dragging a parachute.”
A mighty chunk of that parachute — the cover — finally gave way near Turn 4 on Lap 218, causing the race’s final caution between Laps 219 and 224.
“The air got underneath and just popped it off,” Czarnecki recalled. “It wasn’t the quarter panel; I knew as long as the quarter panel stayed on there, we were probably going to be at least well enough to finish the race. Of course, we got the caution and were able to come in and get that piece cut off.”
Which led to more tape, more tinkering — and more than a few Hail Mary’s on the restart.
“These cars, they’re very unstable, and I think a lot of that is because of the track here,” offered Logano, who wound up 39th. “It just hasn’t really rubbered in. It (was) a cool day, it’s not really rubbered in like they want it to, and we’re stuck in two lanes. And with this hard tire, when the cars get loose, they start chattering, and it gets really hard to control them.”
It gets even harder when that aforementioned car also happens to be falling apart at the seams. Czarnecki estimated that Keselowski — who moved up to third in the Sprint Cup standings Sunday, pending his appeal — drove at least “35-40 laps” with a loose quarter panel. And that wasn’t the only item on the fritz.
“With 22 (laps) to go — I know, because I looked at the scoreboard — with 22 to go, Brad said, ‘Something’s broke on the front end, too,’” the Penske executive noted. “He said, ‘Something’s just broke on the front end, and the splitter’s dragging on the racetrack.’
“But he just kept driving it. And the spotter, Joey Meier told him, ‘Look, 20 laps to go, just do what you can with it.’”
Which, as it turns out, was plenty. Between laps 240 and 267, Keselowski somehow sashayed from ninth to sixth.
“I mean, if you had told me, with 40 laps to go, that we’d be even in the top 10, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Czarnecki allowed. “I’d say, ‘Well, what happened? Did all those guys wreck in front of us?’ But that wasn’t to be.
“But this is good. This is good for everybody’s morale. It just validates the way (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) and Brad are leading the team.”
And for one day, at least, that’s victory enough.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org