Brad Keselowski escaped the bumps and tire woes to win at Martinsville Speedway
Six races down, one driver named Brad Keselowski returned to victory lane and matched his car number with the number of wins he has in 2017.
In Team Penske’s 1,000th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Keselowski delivered a special victory in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia Sunday.
Keselowski held off Kyle Busch by 1.806 seconds for his 23rd career win and his first at the historic 70-year-old race track.
In an interview, Keselowski said winning at Martinsville meant a lot after coming up short on multiple occasions.
“We’ve ran so good but something always happens and haven’t been able to bring it home,” Keselowski said. “Martinsville is just one of those champion’s track, the guys that run well everywhere run good here. It’s really an honor to win and get to compete here. The history of this track and a lot of legends have won here, it feels great to join them.”
Keselowski said car owner Roger Penske has put a lot of effort on building a race winning car at Martinsville.
“Team Penske has put so much effort in these Martinsville cars the last three or four years,” Keselowski said. “We knew it was one of our weakest tracks and finally we got the result we deserved.”
Keselowski’s win marked Ford’s first win at Martinsville since Kurt Busch Oct. 20, 2002 and Penske’s first since Rusty Wallace April 18, 2004.
In a post conference interview, Penske gave credit to Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe for Sunday’s victory after serving a one-race suspension at Auto Club Speedway March 26.
“Real credit to Paul for adjusting the car as the track changed and picked up rubber,” Penske said. “Those are things you have to take into consideration and I didn’t see Brad make a mistake all day and it was a flawless effort.”
The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford got off to a rocky start in the first two stages, keeping him out of contention after speeding on pit road.
While Keselowski slowly crawled his way towards the front, Kyle was in command for most of the race.
Stage racing has received mixed reception by NASCAR fans since introduced in January but the closing laps of the second stage showcased a positive side to the new format.
Kyle led 108 consecutive laps and appeared to have stage two locked but lapped traffic became his worst enemy.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. raced hard to stay on the lead lap and did anything to avoid being lapped by Kyle.
Then on the final turn of the final lap of stage two, Stenhouse, Jr. nudged Kyle and sent him off the racing groove as Chase Elliott passed him to steal 10 points and a playoff point from Kyle.
An infuriated Kyle ranted on the radio over Stenhouse, Jr.’s bump shortly thereafter.
NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said Monday stage racing has provided a different edge from several drivers.
“Ricky made a move to preserved his position on the lead lap with Kyle and ultimately Chase wining stage two is why we put the stage format in place and it worked out,” O’Donnell said. “Every point matters and Kyle lost a point in terms of the playoffs and a point in the stage and that matters to them. The sport is all about emotion and the stage racing is delivering.”
Kyle regained the lead on the final stage but lost it for good to Keselowski on lap 458 and finished second.
Kyle, who led a race-high 274 laps, said he was frustrated of losing.
“All we do is put four tires on it and it went to junk,” Kyle said. “The (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) deserves much better finishes than we’ve been able to produce. It’s just a frustrating season so far.”
Kyle thanked his race team for providing an awesome race car but said they need to figure out how to produce better results.
“We were light’s out faster than those guys after 20 laps,” Kyle said. “During the last run, it was at minimum three tenths slower the entire time and that’s why Brad was able to drive away at the end. We were really struggling, I’m surprised I held of Chase. Overall, not quite getting the finishes that we need.”
Chevrolet’s most consistent team, Chip Ganassi Racing, struggled most of the day as both drivers failed to finish in the top-10.
Points leader Kyle Larson started off with an early race lead but struggled for track position and finished 17th, his worst of the season.
Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray didn’t fare better as a cut left rear tire on lap 108 spun him around and hit the turn three wall at full speed.
McMurray walked away from the crash and finished last in 38th.
Larson lost several championship points and now has a four-point cushion over Elliott.
The Cup drivers go from the rugged 0.526-mile paper clip circuit to the fast and reconstructed 1.5-mile track at Texas Motor Speedway April 9.
Kyle is the defending spring winner after a costly pit stop hindered Martin Truex, Jr.’s dominance April 9, 2016.