TALLADEGA, Ala. — Brad Keselowski refused to be knocked down — not by Matt Kenseth, who jumped him from behind after a disastrous race at Charlotte, and not by garage-wide condemnation over his post-race meltdown.
He kept his head up and arrived at Talladega Superspeedway determined to shake off a bad week that earned him a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and moved him to the edge of elimination in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Only a win would keep his title hopes alive.
Only the toughest of drivers could tune out everything that had happened and ignore the weeklong chorus of criticism from his peers.
Keselowski pulled it off Sunday with an improbable victory that moved him into the third round of the Chase. He used a push from Team Penske teammate Joey Logano on a restart in overtime, and then got last-lap coverage from, who else? Kenseth.
“I know there’s probably some people out there that aren’t really happy I won. I can understand that. But I’m a man like anyone else and not real proud of last week. But I’m real proud of today,” said Keselowski, who found comedic relief in his assist from Kenseth.
“It was funny how this racing world works out. I don’t know why it is that way. I don’t know why it seems like every week where there’s either a fight in the garage or a mishap or something like that happens, those two cars and people end up together.”
His professionalism under attack and his season slipping away, Keselowski still managed to focus on the difficult task at hand. He was in a three-way race to Victory Lane with six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all three needing to win to stave off elimination.
It was Keselowski who grabbed the checkered flag.
“I’ll take the 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn’t you?” said Keselowski team owner Roger Penske. The owner and driver can just take the fine out of the winner’s check of $288,361.
But Penske, winner of the IndyCar title this year with Will Power, strongly defended the driver who gave him his first career Cup title two seasons ago.
“These guys are jealous of the job he’s done this year,” Penske said. “He’s won six races. He’s made poles. He’s been up front. Nobody likes to see a guy win like that.
“I want him to get mad. I don’t want him to take it. We talked about it (last week). I said, ‘Brad, put it in the rearview mirror.’”
Logano and Kevin Harvick, the winners of the first two races in the second round, also advanced to the third three-race round along with Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Hamlin and Kenseth. The field will be cut to four after the ninth race. Points are reset after each round and the title will be decided by finishing order in the Nov. 16 finale at Homestead.
After the race, NASCAR said Newman’s car failed inspection because it was too low on both sides of the back of his Chevrolet. Penalties will likely be issued Tuesday, but that infraction typically is docked 15 points. Newman holds a 27-point lead over Kasey Kahne, who was eliminated Sunday.
The much-anticipated championship battle between Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports took a major hit. Penske got both Keselowski and Logano into the third round, but Hendrick had three of its four drivers eliminated Sunday. Only Gordon advanced.
“Great teams, great drivers, great friends. I hate to see them not in there,” Gordon said about Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne. “I really thought the chances of two of them getting in were very good, and certainly one of them. I thought two of us would be in there, and I thought there’s a decent chance three could be there.”
Hendrick and Penske drivers combined for 17 wins in the first 26 races, and have dueled all season as the top two organizations in NASCAR.
“We’ll just go and try and win some races before the year’s out,” Earnhardt said. “That all we’ve got left.”
But Talladega, one of only two tracks in NASCAR that requires horsepower-sapping restrictor plates and most of the field runs in one giant pack, is a crapshoot. One slip can trigger a massive accident, and a drivers’ fate often comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s what happened to Kyle Busch, who entered the race ranked second in the 12-driver field but was the fourth driver eliminated from the Chase because he was caught in an early accident. He was hit from behind, had to go to the garage for repairs and finished 40th on Sunday.
“We are destroyed. We are absolutely killed,” said Busch, who appeared to be hit by Austin Dillon. “I got wrecked from behind. We are done.”
The drivers in danger of elimination paced the early parts of the race. Keselowski had to drop to the back of the field at the start for an unapproved change to his Ford, but he picked his way through traffic and made it to the front of the field to lead.
Johnson and Earnhardt also charged to the front, and the three drivers who needed to win tried to set the early pace of the race.
Only Keselowski was where he needed to be at the end.
Johnson, who now has to look ahead at chasing No. 7 in 2015, perched himself on the window of his car and watched Keselowski’s post-race celebration.
“We had a chance and came up short,” Johnson said. “We have to make the best of ‘15. We have a chance to finish fifth in points, which would mean the world to me. The worst I’ve finished is sixth in the points, so it’s not time to put our feet up. We need to finish strong and try to be in the top-five.”
Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, and Newman completed the top five. Danica Patrick led 26 laps late in the race before fading to 19th.
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