TALLADEGA, Ala. — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America photo —
One week ago, Brad Keselowski’s championship hopes were all but in the drain and he was battered (literally) after a post-race altercation with Matt Kenseth.
However, just like the 2013 Iron Bowl and the Auburn team that could, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion fired his Hail Mary shot — and it paid every dividend he needed it to.
Keselowski shot to the lead on the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish off a push from his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano and held off a last-ditch charge by both Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth on the final lap to claim the victory in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski fought back from damage received in a lap 60 crash to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by virtue of the clutch performance.
“Well, I guess first off the right way (to advance to the next round) wasn’t last week,” Keselowski admitted in Victory Lane. “I think that makes this week a little more special. I know there’s probably some people out there not real happy I won but it is what it is. I’m not proud of last week but this is so special. I don’t even know how to say it.”
The win was Keselowski’s sixth win of the 2014 season, his 16th career win and his third at NASCAR’s fastest speedway.
“My first win of my career was here, and I think this one is equal,” Keselowski added of the significance of his performance. “We’re moving on to the next round today.”
In a twist of irony, Kenseth’s push coming off of turn four was the edge that Keselowski needed to hold the field off to the line, just eight days following the pair’s dust-up in Charlotte.
“I didn’t feel like I had enough strength to hang in the top five or six, which was safe,” Kenseth said post-race. “Once we got shuffled back far enough, we tried to be as close to the pack as we could for that last pit stop. I knew Jason and The Home Depot guys would have a good strategy, and we had a great stop. Gained a chunk of the track position back and then the caution fell when we were leaving pit road. That put us up in 12th or something. Had a couple good restarts; we were kind of in the right place at the right time and we got a good finish.”
Asked how he felt about pushing Keselowski to the victory, however — the always humorous Kenseth had a classic answer to the emotions of the final lap.
“I was hoping to spin him out,” Kenseth said matter-of-factly. “Just kidding,” he chuckled.
“(But) when it comes down to the end of the race at Talladega, it’s not like you can be, ‘All right, I’m going to do that, this.’ You have to do what’s best for your best finish, and today, that was it,” Kenseth added.
Kenseth was followed by Clint Bowyer, who made a wild charge late to come home third. Landon Cassill finished a surprising fourth and led the underdog teams at the checkers. Newman faded on the outside lane and completed the top five.
The race’s final restart was set up after a debris caution with five laps to go sparked the first attempt at NASCAR’s version of ‘overtime’. On that attempt, a multi-car crash on the backstretch slowed the field and involved David Gilliland, Greg Biffle, Michael Annett, Paul Menard and most notably, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior led 31 laps early on in the event but faded during the race’s second half and ultimately finished 31st following the crash, ending his championship hopes along with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, as well as Kyle Busch, who entered the race third in points.
Johnson looked to have the car to beat all day, leading 84 of the race’s 194 laps and being in contention up until a caution on lap 175 for a Kyle Larson spin exiting pit road shuffled him out of the top spot during the final cycle of green flag pit stops. Johnson then was shuffled back on the series of restarts to end the race and finished 24th, dooming his hopes for a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title.
Busch was the shock of the afternoon however, After he seemingly just needed to coast to a spot in the Eliminator Round, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was collected in a lap 103 crash after riding at the tail of the field for most of the afternoon and spent 47 laps behind the wall as a result of his torn up race car. Busch finished 40th on the afternoon and missed the Chase cut-off line by seven points at the finish despite making it back out onto the track before the checkered flag.
In all, the race was slowed by just six cautions for 25 laps and finished at an average speed of 151.261 mph, featuring 38 lead changes among 19 drivers — the lowest number of lead changes in the last five Talladega events.
The eight drivers to advance — Logano, Kevin Harvick, Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Newman, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Kenseth — now head to Martinsville Speedway for the first race of the Eliminator Round.
For those eight, their point totals will be reset to 4,000. For the four drivers who were eliminated from the Chase field, they will see their point totals reset to the Chase-start base of 2,000 plus any bonus points for regular-season wins and the additional points they have earned in the Chase.
The penultimate round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup goes green from Martinsville next Sunday, Oct. 26 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time with live coverage on ESPN.