Keselowski, Penske Come Up Big At Short Track

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 24 2019
Brad Keselowski put on a smoke show after winning at Martinsville on Sunday. RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Even though the 36-race 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is in its infancy, it’s already taken on the appearance of a power struggle between Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.

In the season’s first six races, the two organizations have led 948 of the 1,811 laps run and split victory lane evenly. Two of JGR’s four drivers have won, but three have led races for a total of 410 laps. All three of Penske’s drivers have been victory contenders this season and led races for a total of 538 laps, but only two have secured a spot in the playoffs.

At Martinsville Speedway, Team Penske flexed its muscles during qualifying with Joey Logano grabbing the pole, but it was Brad Keselowski who executed the knockout blow in Sunday’s STP 500. Keselowski led 446 of the 500 laps to secure his 29th career Cup victory and second at NASCAR’s shortest track.

 “I knew when we qualified third (on Saturday) that we were going to be really tough to beat,” Keselowski said. “(But) I think the stats maybe look a little bit more dominant than I think it really was.”

That statement, however, was one that might cause some raised eyebrows. Keselowski took the lead from Logano on lap 6 and held it for the next 319 laps, winning the first two stages. The only time he lost the top spot was on lap 325 when Chase Elliott bumped him and then scooted underneath him and into the lead.

 “I thought that might be the end of our day,” Keselowski said about Elliott’s pass. “I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day. But I was able to learn a few things from him (after he passed me) and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it.”

Elliott led 49 laps before Matt Tifft hit the second-turn wall to bring out the sixth of seven caution flags. The lead-lap cars pitted and Keselowski’s crew once again executed a flawless, four-tire stop to return their driver to the top spot for the restart. Keselowski then held off Elliott on the restart to lead the final 127 laps.

“It was a stressful day,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “The 9 (Elliott) was strong all day, and for us it was really trying to find that right balance between being good on the shorter run versus the long run.

“We seemed pretty good at the start of the race.  As the race went on, the track tightened up and we didn’t seem to be quite fast enough on the short run, and as we got towards the closing couple runs, (the) driver wanted me to free it up. He said he needed to be freer to be able to win this race. We made some small adjustments, but it’s hard when you’ve run 300, 400 laps. You’re afraid to go too big and get too far on the other side of it.”

Wolfe said the adjustments were enough to hold off Elliott on the short run, but he believed it leveled out on a long run.

Elliott admitted he was “pretty well content” on moving Keselowski out of the way when he needed to, but he didn’t know what else he could have done at the end in his efforts to catch him.

“I felt like we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “I tried to move up there at the end. Maybe if I had moved up a little sooner … maybe.”

With success coming so early in the season, Team Penske executive Walt Czarnecki said it serves as a “great morale builder” for everyone. 

“But I think we all recognize … there’s still 30 races to go, and we want to keep things in perspective,” Czarnecki said. “We recognize that the competition is upping their game.”

Sometimes success can breed complacency and Keselowski admitted it’s something he worries about daily.

“Every day I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Am I better today than I was yesterday?’” Keselowski said. “And if I’m not, and if we’re not, we’re going to lose. That’s the simple matter of this. The sport is very dynamic. Technology is changing every day. 

“Somewhere out there right now someone is working on the next advancement that’s going to be critical to winning the playoffs, and we don’t know about it.  Might be another team, might be someone in our own group.  If we stay stagnant, it’s guaranteed we will fall.”

That, however, wasn’t the case at Martinsville.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 24 2019
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