RICHMOND, Va. — Recap by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images photo — On a night when so many contenders needed to be perfect in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it was instead a driver who was already locked in that played Richmond to perfection.
Brad Keselowski, who came into the night in a five-way deadlock for the No. 1 seed on the Chase Grid, obliterated his competition and romped to his series-leading fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season during Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, leading a track-record 383 of 400 laps en route to the win after starting the night from the pole position.
The victory, Keselowski’s 14th career Cup triumph, gives the Team Penske driver the official No. 1 seed in the Chase Grid Rankings headed to the Chase opener next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
“What a night!” a stunned Keselowski said in Gatorade Victory Lane. “Part of me, I pulled into victory lane and 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. The Miller Lite Ford Fusion was just flying, and this is — I couldn’t ask for a better way to enter the Chase than to win and take the first seed.”
“We’re ready. We want to run for another Cup. We really feel like this team has it. Team Penske is really clicking … 400th win for Team Penske, and this feels so lucky, man, to have such an incredible team and a car like we did tonight and be able to execute it and not have any bad luck. We’ve had plenty of bad luck over the last few weeks, but, wow, what a night!”
Keselowski paced the opening laps before Kevin Harvick rolled the extreme high side around the Penske Deuce going down the backstretch, taking the lead at lap 43 before the competition caution flew at lap 50 for teams to check tire wear following all the rain that went through the Richmond area over the course of the weekend.
Keselowski held the lead following the exchange of pit stops and was not seriously challenged again until lap 120, when Harvick again slid around Keselowski coming off of turn 2 on the high side to grab the lead.
Moments later, however, Matt Kenseth’s Dollar General Toyota smacked the outside wall going into turn 1 and the caution flew for debris from the incident at lap 124.
From there, it was game, set, match as Keselowski took the lead from Harvick on the cycle of pit stops and never relinquished the lead again, despite a green flag pit cycle on lap 231 that closed the lead gap from nearly 4 seconds down to just three car lengths and two late race caution flags that produced restarts with several top contenders needing to win to qualify for the Chase.
The first caution after halfway flew on lap 262 for debris and ended a 131-lap green-flag run, while the second was one of the more bizarre moments in NASCAR history, flying because a fan was perched on top of the catch fence in turn 4, drawing security to the area and forcing the caution due to safety implications. On neither restart was Keselowski challenged, and Harvick ultimately fell back to finish fifth at the checkered flag.
Jeff Gordon chased Keselowski to the finish line in second but could never mount a challenge for the win. However, the four-time Sprint Cup champion is optimistic about his chances to contend as the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins.
“I’m very confident because we’ve got such a great race team,” Gordon said after the event. “I didn’t feel like we had a car that could compete with Brad at certain portions of the night, but we just never gave up on it … great pit stops, great adjustments, and there at the end, we were closing on him. It wasn’t a win, but still great momentum to carry into the Chase.”
“This team is on fire, and we just can’t wait to get it all started. It’s been a heck of a year. Our fans and the way that they’ve embraced this season has been extremely motivating, and I know how proud they are. And we’re proud of the effort and the results that we’re getting this year. Ten more weeks that we’ve got to get it done, and this team is ready to do that. This is the team I want to go to battle with for the next ten weeks, and the ‘Drive for Five’ is alive.”
Win-less Clint Bowyer finished third and came up seven points short of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but Bowyer left nothing on the table at the end.
“That was our best effort,” he said. “That’s all I had. That’s all we had as a race team. We put it all out there, and still, we were just third best.”
Jamie McMurray, another driver who needed a win to get in, was fourth.
Ryan Newman (9th) and Greg Biffle (19th) were the final two drivers to transfer to the postseason.
“Man, that was the race of my life right there,” a visibly exhausted Biffle said following the event. “That’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done right there. It’s tough because five top-tens got us into this position and then to finish 19th tonight, that’s rough. But we’ll go through what we did wrong this week and hopefully come back stronger next week at Chicagoland.”
Jimmie Johnson, who finished eighth, was taken to the infield care center following the event after being faint upon exiting his race car. Johnson was reportedly suffering from dehydration according to crew chief Chad Knaus. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was already locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup and remains the only driver to qualify for every Chase since the format’s inception in 2004.
The 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup kicks off with the opening race of the Challenger Round, the myAfibStory.com 400, next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Matt Kenseth is the defending race winner.