As a hard-fought day at Martinsville Speedway wound down Sunday, Brad Keselowski’s championship hopes took a big hit as the No. 2 Team Penske Ford had an issue and was caught up in a wreck on Lap 436.
Running inside the top 10 when his car started vibrating violently and popped out of gear on the backstretch, Keselowski slowed and was able to get the car in gear, but the car slowed dramatically off Turn 4.
As Keselowski slowed on the frontstretch the rest of the field scurried around him, but Casey Mears drove hard into the back of the No. 2 Ford. The contact triggered multi-car wreck that collected Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
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Since he could get the car back in gear, Keselowski told the crew he believed a broken axle was the cause. It was uncertain later if that actually was the issue, however.
Per NASCAR rules, under the red flag the team was unable to work on the car and was forced to sit by and formulate a plan of action once the red flag was lifted.
Once the race was put back under caution the team jacked the car up and determined it was not a broken axle. The team then pushed the car to the garage area for further repairs with 64 laps to go and got their driver back on track with 30 laps to go, but Keselowski had fallen to 32nd, 28 laps down.
Walking from the infield care center, Mears said he did not see Keselowski slowing and had little time to react.
"I didn’t see it at all," he said. "I was behind the 43 (Aric Almirola) enough where I really couldn’t see what was going on. My spotter tried to react and tell me, but by that time I was running in the back of the 2 (Keselowski). The 43 pulled down and I was going to use the whole track, and I didn’t realize someone was stopped up there and hit him hard, then I got hit hard from behind."
Kahne, who was multiple laps down from an earlier incident with Brian Vickers, echoed what Mears said, indicating everything happened too fast to get slowed down.
"I just didn’t even really see him slowing down," said Kahne. "My spotter was spotting me and he saw it last second. As soon as he said it I hit the brakes, but by then it was way too late. I was just looking at the 78 (Truex) and he was slowing up and I was already into him. It was a pretty good hit."
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag, Keselowski was 31st on the leaderboard, 28 laps down. The poor result dropped him to seventh in the Chase standings, 31 marks behind points leader Jeff Gordon.
One of the eight drivers vying for the Sprint Cup championship, Sunday’s tough race will make the next two races at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway much more crucial for Keselowski.
"It’s not the day we want by any means, but the guys did a great job," said Keselowski. "They put a gear in this car in 28 laps at Martinsville, that’s pretty phenomenal but it was just unfortunate the way the day played out. We were doing the things we needed to do. We were surviving. We were gonna probably have ourselves a fifth or sixth-place day, which is certainly something we could be proud of and move forward with, but this kind of puts us in a position now where we need to win.
"This Chase lends itself to those moments and we’re a team that’s capable of them, so we’ll try to be as positive as we can and move forward with two more opportunities to do just that."
Keselowski faced a similar uphill battle in the Contender Round of the Chase when a blown tire at Kansas Speedway led to a must-win situation as he headed to Talladega Superspeedway. The 2012 champion rose to the occasion and score the must-win victory at Talladega to advance to the Eliminator 8.
"It’s not like we’re just gonna go and guarantee a win at Texas and Phoenix, but it’s also not impossible and we’ve got the team, if there is one, to pull it off."
VIDEO: Brad Keselowski’s part failure causes multi-car wreck