Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is right back where he started, leading the standings.
Keselowski moved up one spot to retake the lead, now over Dale Earnhardt Jr., with his third-place finish in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.
The Penske Racing driver led 62 laps and engaged in a riveting battle for the lead, lap after lap, with eventual winner Kasey Kahne before slipping to his final slot.
He did not, however, run among the leaders all day. Keselowski and his team steadily worked on his car and moved toward the front before taking the lead for the first time on Lap 397 of the 500.
“At the end, it started to come together,” he said. “We weren’t very close at the start, that’s for sure. But the guys on the (No.) 2 team got it dialed in there towards the end, had a shot at a solid finish.
“I don’t think I had anything for Kasey, I don’t know if anyone did. He was good through the middle, really everywhere. In a league of his own. I’d be damned if it was going to keep me from trying.”
He looked like he was on track to hold on for the win. But then, as often happens at Bristol, things changed quickly. Keselowski said that the final caution, which came out on Lap 456 after Jimmie Johnson slammed into the wall, cost him the chance to win when he had the lead, then suddenly lost ground quickly.
“Yeah, I mean, I haven’t seen the replay,” he said of the final restart. “I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart zone. Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal. Made myself look like an ass. That was the deal. Never had another chance.”
Still, he’s off to the best start in his four-year Sprint Cup career, carrying a nine-point lead over Earnhardt Jr. in the standings.
But in a race like Sunday’s, Keselowski left wanting more. Not necessarily more in terms of a higher finish, but also just plain racing.
“Had a good battle going there,” he said. “Kind of hated to see that one come to an end.”