Race Capsule: Keselowski stretches fuel, wins again in Kentucky
Brad Keselowski has won at Kentucky Speedway in every even-numbered year there has been a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Sparta, Kentucky track. Saturday night's Quaker State 400 was the first on the newly repaved and reconfigured 1.5-mile surface. And it took its toll on the field.
Flag to Flag: Rain
Harvick's team got him the lead out of the pits several times, as a record-tying 11 cautions made teams only have to stop under green one or two times in the whole race. Under green stops, Harvick overshot his pit stall as he pitted from the lead and he fell to third place. But a caution came out just after that, erasing the deficit.
Keselowski struggled in the early going of the race, after starting 2nd. But crew chief Paul Wolfe stayed out during one pit sequence under yellow and gained some track position. From that point on, Keselowski stayed in the top 5 and put himself in prime position to score his second-straight win.
On the final pit stops under yellow on lap 195, Martin Truex Jr. (10th) came out with the lead, but Harvick was infuriated on the team radio, saying Truex Jr. passed him before they pitted. NASCAR saw that as well and sent the No. 78 to the tail end of the longest line. On the restart, Keselowski disposed of Harvick, who said his car was incredibly loose. Kenseth took the 2nd spot and the leaders rode around knowing they were probably a few laps short of the finish on fuel. Keselowski set a torrid pace and opened a big lead, but then started saving fuel as his team decided whether they would try and stretch the fuel to the finish or pit.
Truex Jr., meanwhile, had two laps more fuel than the leaders, as he pitted again to top off before serving his penalty. He tore through the field all the way up to the 3rd spot, but could not get by Kenseth. Then crew chief Cole Pearn decided that they could not make the finish on fuel and had to pit with a few laps remaining. Kyle Busch (12th) made that decision first and soon Harvick and Kenseth and many others followed. Kenseth actually took the lead for one lap briefly as Keselowski entered super-conservation mode.
Once Kenseth pitted, Keselowski had about an eight second lead over Carl Edwards (2nd) and other drivers that were saving fuel. But Edwards caught Keselowski as they came to the white flag. Keselowski appeared out of fuel and slowed dramatically. Keselowski then sped back up and barely kept him at bay to score his series-leading 4th win of the season and the 21st of his career.
Many wrecks slowed the race, mainly due to drivers having to brake heavily, heat the beads on the right front tires, and then cutting down the tires. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (40th) brought out the night's first yellow on lap 12. Jimmie Johnson (32nd) got loose in Turn 3, widely regarded as the toughest corner on the track, and wrecked on lap 33. Joey Logano (39th) got loose and tagged the wall, but stayed on the track to ride it out. As he lost more spots, Logano overheated the brakes and wrecked hard on lap 55. Matt DiBenedetto (38th) wrecked on lap 82 in a similar way and rookies Chase Elliott (31st) and Ryan Blaney (35th) got into each other and into the wall on the next restart. On the next restart on lap 94, Brian Scott (33rd) got sideways and clobbered fellow rookie Chris Buescher (37th) and A.J. Allmendinger (36th), who wrecked again by himself later and ended his night. Regan Smith (34th) also was in the Scott wreck and later destroyed his damaged No. 7 Chevy about 50 laps later. Clint Bowyer (23rd) also spun later at the hands of Danica Patrick (17th) and Landon Cassill (29th) had a good run going, but scraped the wall and then later cut a tire and hit the wall hard, to bring out the final caution of the night that was just outside many drivers' fuel windows.
The cars were on edge all night, especially in turns three and four and ran at higher speeds than expected, because of the added grip on the newer pavement. This made passing harder, even with the much-heralded low downforce package used a few weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway.
The extra cautions caused enough pauses to make the race more exciting than it would have been normally, considering the passing difficulty. Eight cars retired early from crash damage, making the results looks more like those at a plate race. NASCAR and Goodyear probably need to confer on a tire that both can withstand the speeds and handle a bit better.
Top 10: Keselowski; Edwards; Ryan Newman (stretched fuel to first top 5 of 2016); Kurt Busch (drove to the front from the back in a backup car for 11th top 10 in 12 races); Tony Stewart (also stretched fuel to second top 5 in three races); Greg Biffle (actually ran in top 10 much of the race after pit strategy); Jamie McMurray (used pit strategy to enter top 10, a handling problem dropped him to 17th and then he stretched fuel to re-enter the Chase bubble); Kenseth (highest finisher of those who pitted for fuel at the end); Harvick (another load of laps led with no win); Truex Jr. (said he would talk to NASCAR about penalty post-race).
The points: With Elliott, Blaney, and Allmendinger wrecking, the points window for those trying to make the Chase with zero wins just shrunk. Elliott is 63 points ahead of 16th-place driver Trevor Bayne (-10 points from 15th McMurray). Blaney was 15th in points entering the race, but is now 18th in points (-24 from McMurray). Allmendinger is 31 points out 20th in the points and Kyle Larson is still 27 points out in 19th. Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Austin Dillon are 12th-14th in points and are separated by three points. But are 31-34 points ahead of Bayne.
RaceTweet: Harvick dominated, Truex Jr. could have won, but Keselowski stretched his fuel and won his third-career Kentucky race. Lots of wrecks on the repaved track.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - This should have been Harvick, but he messed up one pit stop, did not have enough gas at the end, and had a horribly handling car on the last run. Keselowski, spotter Joey Meier, and crew chief Wolfe were in unison, each feeding the other extremely good feedback. They were very close to
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - Something seems amiss in the No. 48 camp. Johnson made yet another unforced error Saturday, wrecking at a track where he had never finished outside the top 10. He also wrecked in practice and simply is not running up front much lately. He hasn't led a lap in four races and hasn't led more than five laps in a race since the Richmond race in late April. Johnson's 14.9 average finish is over 1.5 spots below his worst season. They need to shape up with the Chase quickly closing in.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Martin Truex Jr. - He made up about 20 spots in roughly 50 laps - on a 1.5-mile track - that was repaved - where the passing was hard. He ended up 10th, but he could have and probably should have won the race.
Ghost Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He ran out of fuel on the last lap, but finished a decent 13th. He was not a bit of a factor the entire night, but at least managed the race. The No. 88 team is far from where it should be, but running just well enough to make the Chase.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Cole Whitt - After a season-best 11th-place at Daytona, Whitt drove the No. 98 car the its second-best run of the year, 21st. The numerous cautions helped the Premium Motorsports team stay in reach and finished only a lap down. Considering Whitt's average finish is 29th, this is a good run for a tiny team.
Wheel of Misfortune: Chris Buescher - He was running with what he said was his best car of the season and likely would have been the top underdog. Instead, Scott spun and absolutely demolished Buescher's No. 34. Another missed opportunity.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Tony Stewart - During the Scott wreck, Stewart could and have and, considering his bum 2016 luck, should have had a windshield full of the No. 44 Ford. Instead, he barely missed the huge wreck and got his second top 5 of the season.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: The low-downforce package that got so much coverage during its unveiling just a month ago at Michigan was a footnote this weekend. The repave of the track and the mediocre results at Michigan are likely the reason why. I am maybe more taken aback by the lack of coverage, because I, too, had forgotten that that is what the cars were running. The low spoiler, side skirt adjustments, and splitter reduction are all moves in the right direction. I still think that the fronts of the cars do not need to be right down on the track. How the narrative ebbs and flows is always interesting and how fans and the media largely ignored the downforce package when it was so messianic just weeks ago is a blatant example.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott had a night to forget after colliding with Blaney. His 31st-place run is his third bad finish in a row, but he still has a solid 8th-place points footing.
David Ragan benefited from the many cautions to soldier out a nice 22nd-place finish. Reed Sorenson also finished a respectable 27th, surviving the carnage.
Friday night's Georgia gang performance in the Xfinity Series race was respectable, with Brandon Jones placing 11th (and still 7th in points). Ryan Sieg was 20th and remains 11th in points. Garrett Smithley finished 24th and is 81 points from being inside the NXS Chase.
Three Georgia drivers ran in Thursday's NCWTS race with decent results. Jones placed 7th, Austin Hill (in a partnership with Young's Motorsports) 18th, and Smithley (driving for SS/Greenlight Racing) 21st. John Wes Townley missed the race with concussion symptoms and Parker Kligerman filled-in.
NXS RaceTweet: Kyle Busch runs away from the field and Erik Jones gets hosed at Kentucky.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Kyle Busch, I mean William Byron wins his 4th race of the season in a fantastic Kentucky battle with Nemechek and Hemric.
Next: The Granite State hosts the NSCS and NXS cars. Cup teams run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday at 1 p.m.on NBCSN, PRN, and Sirius/XM Ch. 90 and the Xfinity cars run Saturday at 4 p.m. on the same channels. The Trucks return a week from Wednesday at Eldora Speedway.