Brad Keselowski crushed the field to score a dominating victory in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway.
Keselowski led 383 of 400 laps to win easily ahead of Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota of Clint Bowyer. Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick completed the top five.
The victory was the fourth of the season and 14th of his career for Keselowski, who will enter the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as the No. 1 seed. Keselowski took his third and final lead of the night on Lap 127 and never trailed again in a spectacular show of strength for his Team Penske No. 2 Ford.
It was also the 400th overall motorsports race victory for team owner Roger Penske, including 85 in the Sprint Cup Series.
Meanwhile, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle secured the final two spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But the night clearly belonged to Keselowski.
"What a night," said the 2012 Sprint Cup champion. "Part of me, when I pulled into Victory Lane I pinched myself once to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. These are nights you don’t forget as a driver and you live for."
Keselowski said he and his team, led by crew chief Paul Wolfe, are ready to do battle for a second championship.
"I couldn’t ask for a better way to enter the Chase than to win and take the first seed," said Keselowski. "We’re ready. We want to run for another Cup. We really feel like this team has it. Team Penske is really clicking."
Second-place finisher Gordon insisted he and his Team Hendrick squad are ready for the championship battle, too.
"This is the team I want to go to battle with for the next 10 weeks, and it’s because of how in sync and the chemistry that we have," said Gordon. "It’s a team that really believes in one another, and you can’t ask for more than that. Well, fast race cars, and we have that, too."
It was Keselowski’s night from the beginning, as he started from the pole, flanked by Gordon, with the Penske Ford blazing fast from the get-go.
Harvick, who also had been fast all weekend running the high line, went around Keselowski and into the lead for the first time on Lap 43.
Because of rain earlier in the day, NASCAR scheduled a competition caution at Lap 50. During the yellow-flag period, Keselowski reclaimed the lead on pit road ahead of Clint Bowyer, Harvick and Gordon.
It took all the way until Lap 120 for Harvick to catch and pass Keselowski, with Bowyer still a close third.
Five laps later, debris on the backstretch brought the yellow flag out for a second time. Again the leaders pitted, and again Keselowski came out first, ahead of Gordon and Harvick. It was the eighth time in two races that Harvick lost the lead on pit road. Keselowski would never trail again for the rest of the race.
At the halfway point, Keselowski led Gordon by 2.969 seconds, having led 183 of the first 200 laps. Harvick was third.
Keselowski led the next 100 laps, too, leading by 1.576 seconds over Bowyer, Gordon and Harvick at the 300-lap mark.
On Lap 331, a caution came out because of a man attempting to climb the fence in Turn 4. The leaders all pitted, with Keselowski narrowly winning the race off pit road over Gordon and Bowyer.
The race restarted on Lap 337, Keselowski keeping Gordon at bay for the lead. And that’s the way they finished as the Penske Blanco Deuce proved unstoppable on the night.
Team owner Penske understandably was pleased, but he sounded a cautionary note, too.
"We take this in stride," said Penske. "Obviously being the top seed is a tremendous effort for the team and certainly puts us in a great place. But we’re not blind. We know there’s plenty of guys out there that (can) beat us, they’re going to want to. What we have to do is stay on course."