Boy, has the tide turned over the past few weeks for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team for Team Penske. After not winning all season, Keselowski and Paul Wolfe pulled out the Southern 500 win at Darlington and followed it up winning the Brickyard 400 to back-end the regular season in style. He survived the war of attrition on Sunday afternoon in the Vegas desert to win the playoff opener and punch his ticket to the second round. His crew did a fantastic job on pit road all afternoon of gaining him track position and the driver of the Auto Trader Ford Fusion did the job on three late restarts to get his team in position to win the race, the 500th across all series for “The Captain” Roger Penske.
It was the 27th win of Brad’s career and third straight, marking the first time in the modern era of NASCAR where three drivers have won three consecutive races in the same season as both Kevin Harvick & Kyle Busch accomplished the feat earlier this season. “To start off the playoffs with a win is really strong. I know it’s three in a row and all that great stuff, but it’s really a testament to this team. We weren’t as fast as the 78 car (Martin Truex Jr.), but we nailed the pit stops and the restarts,” Keselowski stated in his post-race interview.
There were several of the 16 playoff drivers involved in on-track incidents during the scorching afternoon race from Vegas that has drastically shaken up the playoff picture with just two races remaining in this round before four contenders are eliminated from the playoff picture. The first was Harvick who wrecked out on lap 148 with a blown tire with the extreme heat on the track and on the tires. He was very upset in his post-race interview despite the 50 playoff-point cushion he opened the playoffs with by virtue of his seven regular season wins, “I’m not happy about anything right now,” and added “It’s like playing Russian Roulette every time you put those piece of crap (Goodyear) tires on.” Obviously, the extreme track temp contributed to the tire wear and a number of issues, but Harvick won the race back in March in Vegas and led a number of laps early and was on his way to another top 5, so a blown tire and a 39th-place finish will certainly put a damper on things.
Among other drivers involved in incidents were pole-sitter Erik Jones who was collected when Harvick blew a tire and hit the wall, causing him to finish 40th. Chase Elliott was also running near the top 5 when he fell victim to another blown tire, this time it was Jamie McMurray who was running one spot ahead of him when he lost a tire and collected the No. 9 causing Elliott to come home in 36th. Denny Hamlin spun on lap 247 and went through the grass tearing up the car ending his day, causing him to finish 32nd. Jimmie Johnson was running up front all afternoon as the Hendrick Chevrolets finally showcased some speed, but with another case of bad luck incurred a flat running three-wide on a late restart awhile also collecting Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, and all three playoff drivers finished 21-23rd respectively. Alex Bowman was contending for the lead at one point, but was also caught up in the incident with Johnson, Bowyer and Busch and came home 19th. A day where all the HMS cars showcased their speed, but all four drivers were plagued with misfortune and bad luck, and in turn a poor result on track.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch was the lone fortunate driver who rebounded from an incident with a top-10 finish as he battled back from contact with the outside wall and a trip through the grass and still came home 7th, although he did surrender the overall points lead to Martin Truex Jr., who came home in third place and won the first stage. Truex chimed in with his take on Brad’s third straight win, “Brad clearly found a horseshoe. Obviously, he hasn’t led the most laps in any of those races, and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short-run speed. I think, clearly, it’s pretty obvious how it worked out. He’s hot right now. He’s on a streak. That’s the way it goes,” Truex concluded. Keselowski didn’t deny the comment from Truex when asked about it adding “He’s spot on, I feel like we stole the last three races.”
Kyle Larson was once again the runner-up at Vegas with Truex, Logano and Blaney rounding out the top five. Almirola, Busch, and non-playoff drivers Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard rounded out the top ten. With all the on-track chaos that ensued on Sunday, the playoff standings were shaken up before short-track night racing at Richmond on Saturday night.
- Brad Keselowski – advanced (2,069)
- Martin Truex Jr. +65 (2,087)
- Kyle Busch +63
- Kevin Harvick +38
- Joey Logano +34
- Kurt Busch +24
- Ryan Blaney +20
- Kyle Larson +19
- Aric Almirola +12
- Austin Dillon +9
- Clint Bowyer +7
- Alex Bowman +6
- Jimmie Johnson -6
- Chase Elliott -9
- Erik Jones -19
- Denny Hamlin -20
Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Hamlin are currently on the outside looking in with Richmond this weekend and the wildcard Charlotte Roval as the last two races before the cut-off. Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson each have three career wins at the Virginia short-track, while Elliott and Jones have an average finish of 13.40 and 19.00 respectively.
One down and nine to go as the journey to crown a champion kicked off in Las Vegas and fans who tuned in or sweat it out in the stands were not dissapointed with great racing in the playoff opener.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank