Keselowski Stays Out Too Late In Martinsville
MARTINSVILLE, Va. – With 25 laps remaining in Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Brad Keselowski asked crew chief Paul Wolfe to let him make the call on whether to pit. Wolfe obliged and Keselowski stayed on the tough, half-mile track.
However, the Penske Racing driver and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the only ones who elected not to come to pit road for fresh tires. It wasn’t the move Keselowski anticipated. With 18 cars on the lead lap, the 28-year-old driver thought more of his competitors would remain on the track. Keselowski’s decision gave him the lead and left Earnhardt Jr. in second.
“It’s at the end of the race and half the field had just pitted 20 or 30 laps ago,” Keselowski said in explaining his decision. “If I was running 15th, I would have stayed out. None of those guys did and I don’t know why. Well, Dale Jr. did. He had some sense.”
After the 500-lap race Keselowski said he needed three or four more cars to remain on the track and at least one more caution before the event concluded in order for his strategy to work. He got the caution on lap 492 when Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards spun, but he didn’t get the cushion he needed between himself and those with fresh tires. The result: Johnson passed Keselowski with 15 laps remaining and won. Keselowski finished sixth and Johnson took a two-point lead in the championship battle with three races remaining. It’s the second time Johnson has led the standings since the Chase began. The other time was after New Hampshire when he
possessed a single point lead over Keselowski.
“This championship is going to come down to Homestead,” Keselowski predicted, referring to the season finale. “You have to be in a position where you’ve got a shot at it and we’re doing the things it’s going to take to be in contention at Homestead.
“I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead. I feel like those are two races that we can race the (No.) 48 [Johnson] heads-up in speed and maybe even a little bit better than them. I’m not quite so sure about Phoenix, but you know the execution we have in this team right now is second to none.”
The Michigan native’s best Phoenix finish has been fifth. Johnson has four victories, including three straight, at the 1-mile track. Texas and Homestead are both 1.5-mile tracks and Johnson expects a tough battle from Keselowski at those facilities. In fact, he believes the next three races will be “pretty even” between the two of them.
“Mile-and-a-halfs in general, the … (No.) 2 [Keselowski] in general (is) very quick,” Johnson said after collecting his seventh Martinsville victory, fourth this season and 59th of his career. “The 2 for sure is going to be a factor at those tracks. I remember racing with him at Phoenix for third or fourth in the spring. Texas, I would assume, would be good for him. Homestead with the fuel mileage stuff, they’ll be fast and be in a nice position with their fuel economy.
“I think in order to be the champion the tracks you know you can win at you have to win at. We did that today. Dover turned into a fuel mileage race, which isn’t the best for us. (That) certainly plays into the 2 car’s hands. With the final three tracks, two of them, if not all three of them, we could see that. We’re working hard to play that game if need be. I think we’re better at it than we were even at the start of the Chase. We’re getting smarter and better. We did what we needed to today for sure.”
Even though Johnson was the race’s top lap-leader, setting the pace on eight occasions for 193 laps, he still had to manage his car during the event.
“The middle portion (of the race) when the sun was out, we seemed to lose our advantage a little bit,” Johnson said. “It was more like a top-five car instead of a race-leading or winning car.
“We kept working on it. The weather conditions were changing. Overcast, clouds came in, cooler temperatures.
The balance on the race track changed a lot for me and it came my way. It was nice to have Mother Nature lend me a hand there at the end and play into what my car needed.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus said the crew made some “significant changes” to the car during the event.
“Obviously, Jimmie did a remarkable job of searching and moving around,” Knaus continued. “When the sun came out, the track got tight, we fell back a little bit. He kept his head in the game. We made some big swing to the chassis again, finally got closer there towards the end of the race.
“I think a true testament to Jimmie is the way he can go out there and manage the race even if we’re not leading, fall back if we need to a little bit, then he’s able to charge back up after he gets his groove and some of the other guys burn their tires off. Jimmie’s experience came into play today, maybe more so than we’ve seen in the Chase so far
Keselowski, who qualified 32nd for the race, knew before his team arrived at the paperclip-shaped track it could be a speed bump for him on the championship road. However, Denny Hamlin, who entered the event 20 points out of first, never envisioned it as the race that would end his championship hopes. A four-time victor at the track, Hamlin saw it as a place where he could gain ground on the other two title contenders. It didn’t happen, however, due to a bolt breaking off the car’s master switch.
“It’s ended in disappointment,” said Hamlin, who finished 33rd and dropped to fifth in the standings, 49 points behind Johnson. “I’ve been in these Chases for seven years and I’ve had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that. All I can do is just drive my heart out and if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. We’ll have our time, it’s just our time is not now.”
Heading into Texas next weekend, Clint Bowyer, who finished fifth Sunday, stands third in the points, 26 behind Johnson. And Johnson said Bowyer shouldn’t be counted out of the championship picture.
“Anything can happen,” Johnson noted. “We [Johnson and Keselowski] could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know.”
Still, Johnson and his five-time NASCAR championship team possess the experience that’s so critical in title battles.
“We were battling for championships well before we won our first five,” Knaus said. “We’ve been together for 10 plus years. I can’t think of a season where we weren’t in the championship hunt. I think that’s something this team and Jimmie are built around. When it’s time to go and make this stuff happen, I think that’s when this team excels.”
– Deb Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org