The grueling 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tour brought its share of ups and downs for Brad Keselowski, but he and the 2 Crew persevered with another solid year.
As a whole, the 36-race season was one of his best to date. Combining speed and execution this year, Brad & Co. were able to pump out 22 Top 10 results — ranking him fourth behind the likes of Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, and Kyle Busch. His 16 Top 5’s had the Michigan native tied for third with Penske teammate Joey Logano, with Harvick and Kyle Busch in a tie for first with just one more marker.
The Paul Wolfe-led team posted four victories. Starting off by notching a win at Las Vegas in the schedule’s third stop, Kes continued the run into the restrictor plate tracks of Talladega and Daytona, before grabbing win No. 4 at Kentucky.
The 2016 campaign kicked off with a modest start. NASCAR’s premier series opens with its biggest event: the Daytona 500, a restrictor-place race known for taking out cars in bunches. Brad managed to escape the carnage and head out of Florida with a middle-of-the-road 20th place finish. “
Speedweeks started off very well for the Miller Lite Ford team. Our car in the Sprint Unlimited was amazing. Unfortunately we just couldn’t get the same performance out of the Daytona 500 car,” Kes said.
The following week brought a new challenge to the 40 top racers in the form of NASCAR’s new aerodynamics package, which was highlighted by a massive downforce reduction. Put to the test on a rough and bumpy Atlanta Motor Speedway, Brad left the Georgia track with his second straight ninth-place run.
“I loved the way the cars drive with the lower downforce package,” BK said. “I understand that it takes more than my opinion to make the sport go round, but I thought it was awesome. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year with the potential this package has.”
After that, NASCAR headed west for their three-stop show, with the first coming in Las Vegas. Already a winner at t1.5-mileile speedway in 2014, Kes knew how to get it done in the desert, and he did it again. Leading 24 laps on the afternoon, it came down to a battle between the 2012 Champion and the defending Champion, with the former taking advantage. Utilizing his long-run car in the later stage of the race, the Deuce was able to cruise on by Kyle Busch’s No.18 machine, and to their first victory of 2016.
“This rules package—I love it. It’s awesome,” he exclaimed in Victory Lane. “The cars, you can be really fast at the start of the run or at the end of the run. We had awesome speed at the end of every run. It seemed like we just couldn’t put it all together with the cautions that came out. But at the end, we got that big long run. I couldn’t get it going on the first few laps of that run, and I thought the 48 and a couple others were going to drive right past me. Then it finally started to take off with about 25 to go and I got to second. And as soon as I got to the 18 I saw that his car had fallen off and mine hadn’t. Gosh, thank you so much! It’s just such a good feeling to get back to Victory Lane. It’s been way too long. I’m just thrilled to be here. I really am.”
Car racing has always been a true testament on how quick things can change, and Brad caught a glimpse of that in Phoenix. Coming off the race-win high in Vegas, the next stop on the west coast tour directed to the one-mile Arizona track, where a blown tire derailed the No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts team’s day. From there, the final stop in the western tour went to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the site of BK’s lone win the year before. With hopes of repeating, he came up short with a ninth place performance.
Back on their feet, the 2 Crew headed east to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where they posted a fifth-place result, along with overcoming a bit of adversity. Throughout the opening stages of the 500 lap race, Keselowski proved the speed in his Miller Lite Ford on the track — and in the pits, relegating them to a penalty. Luckily for them, it came early enough to bounce back to a solid finish.
Currently ranked sixth in points with a win, Wolfe and the team started to roll the dice towards more victories. Their next two races at Texas and Bristol both ended up as P18 finishes. Plagued by a loose wheel in Texas, and a wounded car in Bristol, the consecutive results were not in the area the team was looking for. Finishing just a spot outside of the Top 10 in Richmond capped off the first quarter of the schedule, but the rough patch didn’t last long.
The Hot Streak
Three consecutive finishes outside of the Top 10 isn’t something that legendary team owner Roger Penske accepts, so BK did the best he could to make up for it with a win at Talladega. A demonstration of pure restrictor plate mastery, he proved that his first three Dega wins were no fluke.
“The guys at Team Penske gave me a great Miller Lite Ford and this Fusion was hauling it,” he said in Victory Lane. “I’m so proud of everybody at Team Penske. To be back in Victory Lane with two wins this year, and we feel like we can get a lot more. The guys went to work and they brought me a really strong car here for Talladega. We’re growing as a team. We made a lot of changes at Team Penske and this feels really good, really good.”
After qualifying seventh, and moving up to spend a total of 46 laps in front of the field, the performance was unlike most seen at these unpredictable wild card races.
With momentum back on the side of the 2 Crew, it was time to roll out to the nation’s heartland in Kansas, where Brad poised himself at a shot at his third win of the year. A late race restart gave him the opportunity to capitalize, but close racing snatched it away just as quickly. He was spun out but still rebounded for a 10th-place finish.
Making his first appearance at Dover in 2016, the race turned into a similar heartbreak story. With one of the best racecars that afternoon, Kes followed Kyle Larson in the early stages, and learned that trouble can still be found out front. In the process of lapping some slower cars, Austin Dillon’s tire let go right in front of the No. 2, giving no time for either driver to react. Causing major damage, both cosmetic and mechanical, Wolfe’s strategic repairs put the speed back in the car. Alongside a major wreck that took out many contenders, it was just what they needed to reach the front end of the field, and wind up finishing sixth.
The teams then returned home to Charlotte for the annual Coca-Cola 600, where BK started and finished fifth in an event dominated by Martin Truex Jr. Heading up north to Pocono, Brad claimed his first and only Coors Light Pole award of the season at the 2.5-mile speedway. Penalized for body modifications early in the going, the team was able to rebound from 37th up to third by the end of the race. Following that with another Top 5 at Michigan, the No. 2 team had the speedways figured out. One thing Brad admits he hasn’t figured out is the twists and turns of Sonoma Raceway, where he managed to log his third Top 15 in seven starts at the 1.99 mile course.
The Race to the Chase
The 10-race surge towards the opening Chase for the Cup event is known to shake up the standings, but for Keselowski, it just served as evidence that they are serious title contenders.
After a disappointing 500 in February, he returned to Daytona in July with a fresh slate, and left with his first trophy from the World Center of Speed. Putting on another display of excellence, BK went on to lead 115 of the 161 laps ran that evening – racing in a class of his own. While it was a humbling experience to be able to win at the most significant track in NASCAR, the race held a greater meaning to Team Penske. In their 50th year of operation, the revered team won their 100th NASCAR Premier Series race, coinciding with Brad’s 250th start.
“I doubted myself here, and we came here for the 500, and quite honestly, we ran like dog crap,” he said. “My team worked on it. I didn’t give up on them. I believed in them and they went to work and put together a better car and it really showed today with a great effort for our whole team. I’m really proud of everybody.”
While there isn’t much to top a win at Daytona, the only thing to do is follow it with another win — which is exactly what Kes did at Kentucky. Repaved prior to the weekend of racing, Brad was concerned that he had lost one of his best tracks, only for it to play out in a fuel mileage situation.
“We knew the fuel mileage,” he said. “We went out and we set a really fast pace there on that restart and was just using fuel, and then it became obvious that you were gonna have to save fuel at the end, but I already used so much. It’s a testament to our guys to have the fuel mileage that we did to be able to get back what I burnt early in the run and get the Miller Lite Ford in Victory Lane. It’s number four this year. Gosh, that’s great. Usually these repaves are kind of my Achilles heel, but to get a win here at Kentucky — I know it’s been a good track for us in the past, but this isn’t the same Kentucky, I can tell you that.”
After back-to-back wins, Brad logged consecutive finishes out of the Top 10. A 15th place in Loudon, and 17th at Indianapolis isn’t what the 2 Crew wanted, but as always they bounced back. Scoring a second-place result in the final trip to Pocono on a fog-shortened Monday race, and succeeding that with a third place result in Watkins Glen, the team kept chugging along. In their second trip to Bristol, Brad had a shot at the win late in the going, but a wreck involving lead car Kurt Busch scrubbed his chances away to a 33rd place finish.
Closing out the final three races of the regular season with Top 10’s being a third in Michigan, ninth at Darlington for the Southern 500, and a fourth at Richmond.
The opening three-race series, the Round of 16, could not have gone much better for BK. Scoring a fifth in Chicagoland, along with a pair of P4’s at Loudon and Dover, the No. 2 team solidly locked in their spot to the Round of 12. Leading a combined total of 16 laps through the round, Brad said they didn’t have a flashy performance — just enough to get the job done.
When it came time for the next three race stretch, the Round of 12, Keselowski kicked it off right with another Top 10 in 7th at Charlotte. Delayed to Sunday, the fall race in the team’s backyard was a wreckfest and disaster for the Chase drivers as five of the remaining 12 finished outside of the Top 30. Moving on to Kansas, Brad’s streak of luck ran out and added his name to the list of those with a poor performance. Luckily, in a sense, so many drivers combined had issues between Charlotte and Kansas, that the race for the transfer spot was almost as exciting as the race for the win.
Heading back to Talladega Superspeedway in the elimination race, Brad entered the weekend poised six points out of transferring to the Round of 8. Instead of worrying about points, BK decided that going for broke and winning the race is the most surefire way to ensure a spot in the next round. Starting the weekend out right by qualifying on the outside of the front row, it didn’t even take the Michigan native a full lap to claim the race lead. Much to the similarity of the previous two plate races, the Deuce was fast — really fast. Spending 90 laps out in front of the field, and with the lead car becoming a magnet for debris, the Miller Lite Ford ran high on temperature a few times before ultimately giving up on lap 144.
“We had a really fast Miller Lite Ford and that kind of ended our day,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to be leading at Talladega. I really like this track. It’s been good to us and there are a lot of great fans here today. We were doing the best we could to make a show of it and have some fun and lead some laps and just happy and proud to have a fast car.”
Eliminated from championship contention, BK shifted his focus towards winning as many of the final four races as he can. Right out of the gate, it looked like he was about to break through at The Paperclip, but instead marked another runner-up Martinsville result behind eventual champion Jimmie Johnson. From there, the team marked a pair of 14th place finishes at Texas and Phoenix, before finishing their season with a P35 at Homestead. Running well inside of the Top 10 all race long, Kes was caught up in a late race restart also involving Chase contender Carl Edwards.
The final point standings ranked Brad in P12, but that is far from an accurate representation of his performance throughout the entire year. Without the Chase format, he would have finished fourth, 70 points out of the title. When it came down to it, the Penske run group had the speed and execution to compete on a championship caliber level, they just needed that extra bit of luck to make it all work right. With two of the three biggest components to success locked down, they’ll look towards the final piece when NASCAR heads back to Daytona in just two months.