Busch has dominated Bristol Motor Speedway of late, but even his mastery of the half-mile wasn’t enough to slow Brad Keselowski’s rampage through the month of August.
Keselowski’s pit crew nailed the money stop with 85 laps to go in the Irwin Tools Night Race, allowing him to jump around Martin Truex Jr. on a restart on lap 420 and pull away from the field to record his third NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season and his second this month.
Keselowski finished in the top three in each of the four races run in August, moving from 21st in points to 11th and virtually locking his team into the Chase thanks to his three victories. But he wasn’t thinking of any of that as he pulled his No. 2 Dodge into Victory Lane on Saturday night.
“The night race at Bristol — this is the race Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win,” Keselowski said. “This is the race of champions. There are races that pay more, races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all.”
As Keselowski sailed toward the finish line, Truex was able to hold off Gordon to score a runner-up finish, getting the best of an epic battle that raged as the laps wound down. Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top five.
After a slow start, it appeared Busch was going to be a factor once again in the final 100 laps. But when he decided to split a pair of cars to make a pass on lap 412, he made some contact that appeared to slow his No. 18 Toyota, bringing out a debris caution in the process.
Busch finished 14th and dropped into a tie with Johnson for the points lead.
Busch’s incident brought out the sixth and final caution of the night, setting up Keselowski’s dash to victory.
Gordon had led 206 laps, the most of anyone, and was in control when the final yellow flag waved. But Keselowski beat Gordon out of the pits, bull-rushed Truex on the restart and set sail.
“I hate we came up short,” Gordon said. “We just couldn’t quite get after it like we needed to being on the inside lane on that last restart. I couldn’t quite clear (Truex).
“I knew at that point we didn’t have enough laps to get by him or get up to the 2 car.”
Despite the disappointment that came with his inability to seal the deal, Gordon moved to sixth in points and was excited about the momentum his team is building heading into the Chase.
“That was an awesome night for us,” he said. “We started up front, had a good pit stall and good pit stops. It felt so good to be that competitive.
“You can’t wait for the next race when you’re running like this. It’s a lot of fun out there.”
For Truex, the runner-up finish was a welcome relief in the midst of a gloomy season. He only had one top five to his credit before moving to the front after starting 27th on Saturday.
“It feels good to be finishing up front because it’s been a while,” Truex said. “We’re working to build some momentum toward the end of the year.
“We were close all night. We fought track position all night, but once we got up front we had a strong car.”
Matt Kenseth lost the handling on his No. 17 car late in the race and finished sixth after leading 110 laps, but he clinched a spot in the Chase along with Johnson and Carl Edwards.
Busch was the first driver to clinch a Chase spot by winning last week in Michigan.
“My guys have been doing a great job this year and it feels good to clinch that spot,” Kenseth said. “I wish we were running just a hair better, but they did a great job.
“There were moments in the race where we seemed pretty good and other moments we were just kind of hanging out.”
Denny Hamlin recovered from an early spin to finish seventh, maintaining his grip on the second wild-card spot with two races remaining until the Chase begins. Newman, the polesitter, came home eighth, and Edwards and Ambrose completed the top 10.
Given the recent surge of the No. 2 team, Keselowski has become a trendy pick to unseat Johnson as the Sprint Cup champion. Gordon knows a thing or two about winning Cup titles, and he doesn’t see any reason that Keselowski can’t contend when the Chase begins.
“I don’t know what more to say about Brad and the 2 team,” Gordon said. “They’re strong and you put them into position at the end of the race and they’re going to close out the wins.”
While many drivers agonize over the choice between building consistency and chasing wins with the playoffs approaching, Keselowski plans to keep the pedal to the metal.
“Hell, why not go for both? I’d like to consistently win,” he said. “That’s what this sport is all about. In its simplest form, it is about winning.”