The playoff intensity was palpable at Martinsville Speedway, but amid all the drama and carnage, Brad Keselowski made it through with an outstanding start to the Round of 8.
The No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford Fusion driver won both stages of the First Data 500 and nearly won his second race at the 0.526-mile track this season, though a late bump delivered by Chase Elliott in a battle for the lead sent BK sliding out of line and settling for a fourth-place finish.
“We had a really great Alliance Truck Parts Ford,” Brad said. “We were able to lead laps, win two stages and bring home a solid finish—and that’s something to be proud of.”
Brad led 104 laps and earned 53 points, second only to race-winner Kyle Busch. He remains in third in the Monster Energy Cup Series standings, 29 points ahead of the Round of 4 cutline.
Brad started seventh and showed right from the start that the Black and Yellow Deuce was a force to be reckoned with. By the first caution of the day at lap 36, Kes had moved into third place. The 2 Crew continued its stellar postseason, sending BK off in second place for the lap 45 restart. Within four laps, he had taken the lead for the first time on the day.
It wouldn’t be a Team Penske race if it wasn’t for a unique strategy call by Paul Wolfe. The No. 2 Crew chief brought Brad down pit road while the majority of the field stayed out at lap 89. The decision dropped Kes in 11th, but he used his fresh tires to drive all the way to the front and win Stage 1.
During Stage 2, the No. 2’s long-run speed was on display. The entire 130-lap stage stayed green, and just two laps before the Stage 2 yellow, Brad out-dueled Busch for his eighth stage win of the season.
Brad waged an outstanding battle with fellow playoff driver Elliot late in Stage 3. Wolfe hooked Brad up with an air pressure adjustment for the 35-lap final run. BK held his position from the outside line before putting the pressure on Elliott. After a fantastic six-lap battle, Brad used a little push from his teammate Joey Logano to vault past the No. 24 Chevrolet and into the lead with 29 laps to go.
While Kes built a comfortable cushion and set sail for the lead, a battle behind him changed the scope of the race. Busch made hard contact with the left-rear tire of Logano, causing heavy smoke to pour out of his No. 22 Ford. With smoke billowing out of the Team Penske machine, he kept remained on the track for several laps before spinning out, bringing the field to a caution with just seven laps to go.
BK chose the outside line for a restart with four laps to go, and after a hard battle on the restart, he was bumped out of line by Elliott.
“I just knew I got in the corner and he was inside of me and we just made contact,” BK said. “The track’s really slick for everybody on the restarts. I think we saw that it takes about five laps or more for everyone to get going, especially the leader. There was a lot of hard fighting here. It’s a short track, that’s what they’re about—hard fighting. You try not to take anyone out. Who’s to say what’s too far and what’s not.”
Brad slid back to seventh place, but just moments later, Elliott was spun out by Denny Hamlin, sparking overtime at The Paperclip. Kes restarted seventh for the two-lap finale. Similar to Elliott’s move on Brad earlier, Busch bumped his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Hamlin, out of line on the final restart and held off Martin Truex Jr. to win. Meanwhile, Hamlin couldn’t recover from the bump by Busch, and he spun out collecting nearly the entire field. Brad was one of the lucky few to skirt by to grab fourth place.
Brad walked away proud of his team’s performance, grabbing two stage wins and a Top 5 finish to start the Round of 8, but he knows that after coming up just shy of the Martinsville win, he’ll have to be at his best at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
“Everyone’s just desperate,” BK said of the race. ” You’ve got two or three cars that are so much better than everybody else on the mile-and-a-halfs that this is our race to get it done, and I think we all know that.”
MENCS PLAYOFFS STANDINGS
1. Kyle Busch – 4100*
2. Martin Truex Jr. – 4117
3. Brad Keselowski – 4079
4. Kevin Harvick – 4053
5. Jimmie Johnson – 4050
6. Ryan Blaney – 4047
7. Denny Hamlin – 4045
8. Chase Elliott – 4027
* – Locked into Championship 4