NASCAR: Keselowski starts the fun with Nationwide win
By Pete Iacobelli
CONCORD — Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, leading the final 67 laps to give Penske Racing a winning start on auto racing’s biggest weekend.
Keselowski raced to his first Nationwide victory of the year. He’ll try to double up in Sprint Cup’s longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night. In between comes the Indy 500, a race that owner Roger Penske’s cars have won 15 times. Penske driver Ryan Briscoe will start from the pole there Sunday.
Penske Racing has “three shots at winning races this weekend,” Keselowski said. “We’re one for one.”
Don’t bet against more Penske wins this weekend. The team’s other drivers in Indianapolis, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, start fifth and sixth. Power has won three times already this year, and Castroneves is a three-time Indy winner.
“I’m happy for” Penske, Keselowski said. “One way or another, the checkered flag at Penske Racing is going to fly this week.
Keselowski led the way as Sprint Cup drivers took the top four spots. Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, last year’s Coca-Cola 600 champion.
Nationwide points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had driveshaft problems and finished 26th.
Danica Patrick started the race in third, yet slid to 13th. She’ll also race Sunday night after spending her past seven Memorial Day weekends driving in Indianapolis.
For a while, it looked as if Keselowski might relive the last-lap, out-of-gas experience that cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a Coca-Cola 600 victory a year ago.
Keselowski gassed up with 73 laps left, then chose to stay out during a caution period a few laps later instead of pitting like most of the field. That began a fuel mileage countdown that had Keselowski and his team guessing if they had enough to make it to the end, unlike Earnhardt, who went dry entering the final turn and was passed for the victory.
“It’s going to be either really good or really bad,” Keselowski said on his radio down the stretch.
Turns out, it was perfect as Keselowski picked up his first Nationwide Series race of the year. It was Keselowski’s 18th win in the series and his second at Charlotte.
Was Keselowski worried those final laps? No, he said, because he was confident in the call made by crew chief Jeremy Bullins. “If Jeremy says we’re going to make, then I believe it,” the driver said, smiling.
Keselowski broke free on the last restart 46 laps from the end. He was able to save so much fuel after building a large lead, Keselowski did a flashy victory burnout to celebrate.
Busch was asked if he could’ve lasted so long on a tank of gas. “No, there’s no way our stuff would’ve done that,” he said.
Stenhouse had hoped to capitalize on a series win last Sunday in Iowa and extend his points lead. Those hopes ended when part of the car’s driveshaft popped out from behind and forced him to the garage for a long stretch of the race. When he returned to action, he was 20 laps down and merely hoping to last until the end.
“Right there under caution before I pulled in it felt like something broke. I started picking up a vibration and came down pit road and didn’t see anything, but then I went back out and it broke. It was just a tough day for us.”
Elliott Sadler, second in points, finished fifth and moved 13 points behind Stenhouse in the standings.
Patrick took third in morning qualifying and thought she was in good position for a strong finish. But she quickly fell backward on the hot, slippery track. Still, Patrick was running at the end and posted her third top 15-finish in her past four Nationwide events.
The wildest day most likely belonged to X-Games standout Travis Pastrana. He spun out in qualifying, then spun twice more during the race. Pastrana apologized to his crew after the last slide, explaining, “I have no idea what’s going on.”
Pastrana came home 24th, his second-best showing in four Nationwide Series races.