TALLADEGA, Ala. — The leader on the last lap isn’t supposed to win at Talladega Superspeedway. Everybody knows that.
Brad Keselowski disagrees, and he showed how to do it Sunday with a calculated plan that sent him to Victory Lane.
Keselowski used a big push from Kyle Busch to pass leader Matt Kenseth, and after leaving the Daytona 500 winner in their wake, Keselowski staved off Busch’s attempt to snatch the win. Using a move Keselowski said he had dreamed about, he held on for his second win of the season and second at Talladega.
“I had this whole plan if I ever got in that situation where I was leading; I thought about it and thought about it, dreamed about what to do, and sure enough, going into (turn) three, it was just me and Kyle,” Keselowski said. “I knew the move I wanted to pull. It worked because the guy running second should have the advantage, but I had this move all worked up in my mind.”
Keselowski was the first driver in the last five races at Talladega to take the white flag and hold on for the win. He did it with a plan that left both Busch and Kenseth flat-footed, and both praised Keselowski after the race.
“He’s no dummy, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who wound up second for the second consecutive day.
Busch was the leader on the last lap of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, and was passed by Joey Logano right at the finish line. He conceded there’s little the leader can do to preserve the victory on the last lap of a restrictor-plate race, and predicted how Sunday would unfold.
“If you’re leading, being pushed, plan on finishing second. That’s all there is to it,” Busch said after Saturday’s defeat.
So he should have been sitting pretty after pushing Keselowski to the front. Instead, Keselowski went high into the third turn, then pulled off of Busch’s bumper to create some separation.
“That allowed me to drive untouched to the checkered flag,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t easy to convince myself to do that, but it was the right move.”
Busch initially seemed dumbfounded.
“I must have screwed something up, because we got to turn three and came unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened. We definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”
Kenseth didn’t feel much better. He led seven times for a race-high 73 laps, but believed he gave the win away on the final restart.
A nine-car accident with four laps remaining brought out the yellow flag, setting up a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish. Kenseth, as the leader, got to pick where he wanted to restart and chose the outside line so Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle would line up behind him and presumably push him to the victory.
That put Keselowski and Busch together on the inside line, but they drifted back on the restart as Kenseth indeed was able to jump out to a huge lead.
It was probably too big of a lead.
Kenseth got a little too far away from Biffle, which gave the Keselowski-Busch tandem a chance to catch him. The two cars sailed past Kenseth on the outside line.
“I think we had the winning car, really just didn’t have the winning driver,” Kenseth said. “I looked forward for a second, when I looked back, Greg and I were separated, those guys were already outside of him. With me not paying attention, keeping us hooked up, just cost us a shot at the win, cost Greg a shot at the win.”“I wasn’t too fast. I was just too stupid I guess at the end to keep a win.”
It put Keselowski in Victory Lane for the second time this season, which helps his championship chances. He’s been streaky through the first 10 races of the year, and even with this second victory, he’s only ranked 12th in the Sprint Cup standings.
But those wins should guarantee him at least a wild-card berth into the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
“Two wins, with the wild card and all, that almost makes you immune to missing the Chase,” Keselowski said. “This team is going to be strong come Chase time. The best is yet to come.”
The victory continued a hot streak for team owner Roger Penske, who won for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series at Talladega. It was also the first win for manufacturer Dodge at Talladega since Dave Marcis in 1976.
Penske, meanwhile, has won all four of the IndyCar races so far this season and driver Will Power is leading the series standings as they prepare for the May 27 Indianapolis 500. For now, though, the team owner is thinking about where Keselowski can take him.
Penske has never won a Cup title since entering NASCAR in 1972, although he was out of the series from 1981 through 1990. Keselowski gave him a Nationwide Series championship in 2010, his only NASCAR title.
“Obviously, one of the goals in my life is to sit up on that stage (at the championship banquet), and I think he’s the guy that can make it happen this year,” said Penske, who called it the perfect race.
That might be going a little too far, which even Keselowski would admit.
He helped cause a caution with seven laps to go when he ran into the back of former Penske teammate Kurt Busch. Keselowski was apologetic immediately after climbing from his car in Victory Lane.
“I got to Kurt and tried to push him. He tried staying in line. He didn’t want to go,” Keselowski said. “He probably didn’t know what was going on behind him, which is natural. When he decided not to go, I tried to force him to go.
It was a combination of events that were unfortunate. I hated to see that happen.”
On the restart with four laps remaining, Penske’s other driver, AJ Allmendinger, was part of the accident that stopped the action again.
It was the last of five cautions in yet another race that featured fairly clean racing. NASCAR’s now had six consecutive uncharacteristically clean races, which drew a tongue-and-cheek response from defending series champion Tony Stewart, who was collected in the Allmendinger accident.
“I’m upset that we didn’t crash more cars,” said Stewart, who finished 24th. “That’s what we’re here for. I feel bad if I don’t spend at least $150,000 in torn-up race cars going back to the shop. We’ve definitely got to do a better job at that.”
Kasey Kahne finished fourth and was followed by Biffle, Clint Bowyer and David Ragan. Trevor Bayne was eighth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ninth and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.