SPARTA – Brad Keselowski and his team cut it so close on fuel in the closing laps of Saturday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts that the driver of the No. 2 Ford needed a shove from a tow truck to reach victory lane.
He couldn’t remember the last time – if ever – that he required such an assist.
“I don’t want to have it happen ever again,” Keselowski said. “I’d rather drive it into victory lane. But you take them any way you can get them.”
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion made his last pit stop on Lap 196 of 267 and stretched his fuel to earn his series-leading fourth victory this season and third in the Quaker State 400 on Saturday night.
“That was something,” Keselowski said. “This is a night I’m not going to forget. Last year, we came here, I thought we were the best car, didn’t catch a single break, didn’t execute, and those two things kept us out of victory lane. This week, we caught some breaks, we executed and we were able to win. Not the fastest car but still a hell of a team effort to be proud of.”
Carl Edwards finished 0.175 of a second – about two car lengths – behind Keselowski in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“I thought he was out of fuel and he wasn’t,” Edwards said. “He played it perfectly. He let me get to him and the stood on it. But we had an opportunity to win the race and I really appreciate my crew chief putting us in that position and TRD and the power and the fuel mileage that we get. Those are great engines. We had a shot at it. We just weren’t able to do it.”
Keselowski took the lead from polesitter Kevin Harvick on a Lap 200 restart and stayed out front until Matt Kenseth passed him on Lap 261. Kenseth pitted for fuel with six laps remaining and Keselowski reclaimed the lead.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe, who made the call for Keselowski to go into fuel-saving mode, said his driver radioed with two laps remaining that the car was running out of fuel, and again with one to go that it was out. The car picked up fuel again in Turn 1, stumbled a little down the backstretch, then picked up enough in Turn 3 to get him across the finish line ahead of Edwards, Wolfe said.
“He does such a good job of saving fuel when we need to that I had confidence enough that we could pull it off this way,” he said. “I knew it was going to be close but that’s ultimately what made it so exciting at the end.”
The first race on Kentucky Speedway’s repaved surface was slowed by 11 cautions, tying an event record, and saw Harvick lead the most laps. He finished ninth in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet followed by Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.
Harvick and Truex had cars capable of winning but circumstances derailed their bids. Both drivers made pit stops in the final 20 laps.
Truex rebounded from a pit road penalty earlier in the race to finish 10th. The penalty was incurred on his next-to-last pit stop. NASCAR penalized him for passing Harvick on entry to his pit stall as the leader pitted under caution on Lap 196.
Truex exited pit road ahead of Harvick but the penalty dropped him to the tail-end of the lead lap cars. He was 23rd on the restart. By Lap 215, Truex had charged back into the top 10 and 10 laps later was up to sixth place. He gained two more spots over the next 10 and was running third with 25 laps to go.
“All you do in instances like that is keep your head down and dig,” Truex said. “We went all the way to third place from the back. That was cool, all in all we still finished 10th. It’s just one of those deals. I’m not sure why we got penalized. It’s a timeline thing, everybody does it. You get your line and you gas it up to your pit, it’s what I did. I don’t know. I guess it wasn’t my night on that deal.
“It’s frustrating, we had the car to beat and I felt like if we didn’t get the 4 (Kevin Harvick) on the pit stop, we weren’t going to be able to pass him. It was so hard to pass. We came out with the lead and they took it away from us. It’s just the way it goes I guess.”
The 11 cautions all came in the first 200 laps and left their mark on the outside wall in Turns 3 and 4.
In the days leading up to the race, drivers spoke about the unique challenge presented by the entrance to Turn 3. A relatively flat entry allowed them to carry high speeds into the corner but NASCAR’s lower downforce rules package meant they had to back off the throttle and coast through it to avoid losing control. Add in the narrow racing groove on the new asphalt and that end of the racetrack troubled several drivers.
“I don’t think there was a driver that didn’t have a handful in Turn 3 tonight,” said Ryan Newman, who earned his first top-five finish of the season with a third in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Harvick dominated the first 134 laps, leading 94 of them, and the first half featured an unusual amount of carnage. Five of the six wrecks that occurred before the race was halfway over came in Turns 3 and 4.
One of the incidents in Turns 3 and 4 took out heralded rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. Blaney found himself in between Greg Biffle and Blaney, got loose and clipped Elliott’s car in Turn 3. They simultaneously spun and backed into the outside wall on Lap 88.
Elliott finished 31st and Blaney finished 35th. Biffle finished sixth behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.
Two drivers who have performed well in the past at Kentucky Speedway were knocked out of contention early in the race.
There are four tracks at which Jimmie Johnson has never won a Sprint Cup race and the six-time series champion’s hopes of checking Kentucky Speedway off the list ended early.
Driving his backup car because he wrecked his primary car in practice on Friday, Johnson spun in Turn 3 and backed into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 32. He returned to the race and finished 32nd his first finish outside the top 10 in six career starts in the Quaker State 400.
Joey Logano won three consecutive XFINITY Series races from the pole at Kentucky Speedway from 2008-2010, but hasn’t won a race at the track since then. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford blew a right front tire on Lap 53 and crashed into the wall. He finished 39th.