Brad Keselowski allowed his inner daredevil to emerge at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday.
“At Talladega, you don’t have a plan,” Keselowski said. “You go up front and race your butt off all day long. You either get to the front or you don’t.”
But Keselowski did indeed have a plan. He knew precisely what his strategy would be if he could maneuver his way to the front of the pack.
With a dominant car, Keselowksi’s aggressive style enabled him to remain toward the front and avoid the problems that cropped up behind him in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. While Keselowski drove a masterful race, his performance was not without fault. He punted his former teammate Kurt Busch on Lap 181 entering Turn 1 — and afterward expressed as much honest remorse as a driver possibly can.
Then Keselowski lined up second for the final restart with former nemesis Kyle Busch in tow. Keselowski knew that if he was leading the last lap coming into Turn 3, he could pull down to the inside of the track and break the draft between his car and Busch’s.
That’s what he did to finish 0.304 seconds ahead of Busch to take the victory. Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.
Keselowski’s effort resulted in his second career win at Talladega Superspeedway and his second victory of the season. The latter accomplishment will likely lock the driver into his second Chase for the Sprint Cup berth. While Keselowski isn’t among the top 11 drivers yet, his 12th-place position in the points standings coupled with two wins would earn him the wild-card spot.
Over the last two seasons, Keselowski has evolved into a championship contender. Team owner Roger Penske has witnessed the 28-year-old racer mature since he recruited Keselowski in 2009.
“He’s come in with an attitude of a winner,” Penske said. “Probably the greatest attribute he has is being a team player. It’s not about Brad, it’s about what’s going on with the team. He says it every day. Whether it’s at the engine shop, with Dodge, Miller, any of our sponsors, he’s obviously there supporting it.”
While Keselowski continues to strengthen his relationship within the Penske Racing organization, more importantly he’s beginning to earn respect among his peers — a quality often overlooked by competitors.
Busch, who has had his share of heated battles with Keselowski in the past, says his peer is “no dummy." He admires his skills on restrictor-plate venues, short tracks and intermediate speedways as well.
“Brad should be a title contender each and every year,” Busch said. “Last year he did a great job through the summer stretch, (was) one of the hottest guys going into the Chase, qualified his way in on wins. This year he’s probably in the top 10 in points, or close to, with two wins. Again, he’s the top seed for the Chase guys. He’s definitely no slouch. They’ve had some bad luck this year with some fueling issues and stuff like that where they’ve been taken out of some even better runs.
“That Penske organization has been around for a long time. That Blue Deuce has been known for being in the top 10 and winning races. It’s no surprise that Brad can do that.”
Certainly, Keselowski’s evolution has been a work in progress. He struggled his first full season in Cup at Penske Racing, scoring just two top-10 finishes and finishing 25th in the points standings. But once the organization aligned him with crew chief Paul Wolfe at the start of 2011, the relationship blossomed.
“Part of what defines a man is what code you live by,” Keselowski said. “One of my codes, it’s probably my strongest code, is to be better today than I was yesterday, and to be even better tomorrow than I was today.
“We’ve shown that we’re better here at this point in the year than we were last year, at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year than we were the year before. You know, that’s my code. I’m surrounded by the proper people to execute it.
“I’m very thankful for where we’re at. I’m hungry to win that championship. … But I refuse to label this year a failure if that goal is not accomplished.”
If Keselowski doesn’t win the title, he will use the lessons learned to attack the competition harder and smarter in 2013 and every year after that time affords him.
The big ones
Fans complaining about wreck withdrawal witnessed accidents in earnest on Sunday.
Aric Almirola triggered the first incident when he waivered below the white line in Turn 3 and clipped Dave Blaney and seven other cars piled into the Lap-143 incident, including polesitter Jeff Gordon.
While Almirola was able to continue on and finish 12th, Blaney, Gordon, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Terry Labonte and Landon Cassill were not as lucky.
For Gordon, the 33rd-place finish was disastrous. The No. 24 team entered the weekend 17th and fell to 23rd in the points standings.
"I don’t know — I didn’t really get to see what started that, why that car was way down low and those two got together and got up in front of the field,” Gordon said. “I don’t know if they were coming off pit road or if they were just racing. I’m not sure.
“Man, this is just one of the most bizarre years that this team has ever gone through. I mean it’s almost comical at this point. That was not fun. I didn’t like hitting the wall. Gosh, I thought I was clear. I was just kind of cruising by on the inside and it looked to me like somebody came down and got Martin (Truex Jr.) and then that turned him into me. That is just the way our season has been going.”
A blown tire took Casey Mears for a wild ride in Turn 2 on Lap 176 – but not before causing damage to Marcos Ambrose, who could not avoid hitting the No. 13 Ford when it slowed. Trevor Bayne also made contact with Mears, but the Wood Brothers’ Ford driver recovered for an eighth-place finish, while Ambrose ended up 14th.
After Keselowski knocked Kurt Busch out of the lead and into the inside wall in Turn 1, 23 cars remained on the lead lap for the dash to the finish on Lap 185. Before the pack could run through Turn 1, AJ Allmendinger dropped to the middle lane to block Denny Hamlin and hooked Paul Menard, sending him spinning in front of the field.
“I had a chance to win the race until it all went down the drain,” said Allmendinger, who finished 15th. “On the restart, everybody was getting after it. I tried to block, if Denny (Hamlin) was already there, my apology."
Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Robert Richardson III, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip were also collected in the melee. The accident was terminal for Harvick, who finished 25th. Hamlin and Stewart placed 23rd and 24th, respectively, but not on the lead lap.
"We didn’t quite crash half the field, which is what we normally look to do here," Stewart said. "I was excited about it. I thought it was a pretty good race. I made it further than I thought I would before I got crashed. I call it a successful day."
While lots of drivers complained about overheating issues throughout the afternoon, four drivers were officially scored with engine failure at the end of the race.
Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, who receive their engines from Hendrick Motorsports, dropped out of contention within 19 laps of each other. On Lap 43, Newman was forced to the garage, then Johnson’s oil pump failed on Lap 61.
“It’s just a bummer, up there leading the race and I could smell a little smoke and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh man, that is me smoking’,” Johnson said.
“I started 19th and was able to manage my temperatures pretty good coming up through the pack. Up there leading in all that clean air, my stuff was way cold. We had a problem with oil pressure; the No. 39 did as well.”
Johnson and Newman finished 35th and 36th, respectively. Johnson remained in the Chase Zone but dropped to eighth in the points standings. Newman was not so lucky. He sunk from 10th to 13th.
Regan Smith was the first driver to experience engine woes after just 15 laps. He finished 40th after his Earnhardt Childress powerplant failed. Tony Raines’ engine expired 32 laps in and placed 38th.
36: Years since a Dodge won a Sprint Cup race at Talladega (Dave Marcis, Aug. 8, 1976).
7: Top-10 finishes for Matt Kenseth at Talladega.
2: DNFs in as many restrictor-plate races for Jimmie Johnson.
2: Laps led by Casey Mears – his first of the season.
Roger Penske, ever the diplomat on NASCAR’s rules package for restrictor-plate racing: " If you don’t like it, Bill France, Sr. told me a long time ago, you don’t have to come and run. I guess I’ve always played by those rules."
Say what II …
Juan Pablo Montoya, on the nature of Sunday’s racing: "It’s Talladega, you know. Some people call that exciting. I don’t. It sucks. We were staying out of trouble. I hadn’t even used the bumper. We were running a smart race. Somebody runs out of gas, somebody hit him and threw him right into us. It sucks. It sucks to lose so many points for the Chase and everything like this. But I guess it’s the racing."