Brad Keselowski does a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Associated Press photo.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Brad Keselowski has established himself as a big-talking, quick-Tweeting, hard-driving up-and-comer.
But after overpowering the field to record his second straight Sprint Cup Series victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, Keselowski wrestled away the torch as the latest in a long line of talented NASCAR drivers to master the legendary half-mile track.
Keselowski narrowly missed being collected in an early wreck, led a career-high 232 laps and survived a late restart against Matt Kenseth to win the Food City 500. It was Keselowski’s first win of the season and an impressive follow-up to his Irwin Tools Night Race last August.
“What can I say? I love Bristol, and Bristol loves me,” Keselowski said. “It’s a great track that really demands 100 percent from the driver. Today, my team really delivered.
“It’s tough racing that requires so much discipline mixed in with some aggression.”
Of course, there also was a bit of luck involved Sunday, as there usually is for Bristol race winners. Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge sustained some minor damage when he skated through a wreck on lap 23 that collected six cars.
But after crew chief Paul Wolfe and his guys patched up the Blue Deuce, Keselowski was able to shoot up through the top five and into the lead by lap 217. His duel with Kenseth ultimately was decided on the final restart of the race, which came on lap 483.
After choosing the high line, Keselowski held off Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford all the way to the checkered flag. Kenseth, who has two Cup wins in Bristol, led 45 laps Sunday before the handling went away from him in the closing laps.
“I raced him as hard as I could race him,” said Kenseth, who finished seven-tenths of a second off Keselowski’s pace. “I was hoping he would get under me, honestly, and burn his right rear (tire) up and we would be able to drive away. He had a little better car there at the end.”
Keselowski said the fifth and final caution, which came out when Tony Stewart hit the wall on lap 479, may have been the biggest factor in deciding the outcome of the race. Keselowski was leading at the time, but Kenseth seemed to be stalking him as the laps wound down.
“Matt Kenseth is the best long-run racer in Cup,” Keselowski said. “I was not very comfortable that we were going to be able to win with him behind me and a very long run to finish the race.
“When the caution came out, I knew if I could beat him on the first lap, I knew I had a good enough car and was a good enough driver to drive away.”
Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, all driving Michael Waltrip Racing entries, rounded out the top five.
A big storyline on Sunday was the attendance, which was generously estimated by NASCAR at 102,000. Keselowski bristled at the suggestion that the new racing surface was responsible for all the empty seats.
“We ran side by side for the lead for a good 20 laps,” he said. “I don’t know what’s better than that. Short of a 30-car wreck every damn week, I don’t know what to ask for.
“I think this place got a bad label for something it doesn’t deserve. It’s better than it’s ever been.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran in the top five for most of the day before a late speeding penalty on pit road dropped him to a 15th-place finish, saw things differently.
“I think the racing has suffered since the change,” Earnhardt said.
But he added that Goodyear ultimately holds the key to improving the racing.
“It’s possible to have an awesome race here,” Earnhardt said. “Aside from digging (the track) up and trying again, they’re going to have to move the tire around a little bit to see if that will affect the racing.”
Sunday’s win was certainly a shot in the arm for Keselowski’s championship aspirations. After a tough start to the season, he moved up to 13th in the series standings, pulling within 44 points of leader Greg Biffle.
Biffle snapped a string of three straight third-place finishes by wrestling a tight race car to a 13th-place result after starting on the pole.
“It wasn’t bad,” he said. “We were back and forth, but there at the end, I don’t know what happened. It hadn’t been that way all day, just way, way too tight. It was all I could do.”
Keselowski said he hopes his recent success at BMS translates into a Cup championship like it has for so many drivers throughout the history of the sport.
“The best drivers here go on and win championships,” he said. “I think it speaks volumes for this track and what it means for your career.
“This place defines a race team. It asks so much of you. As a driver, 500 laps in a bowl, trying to keep your composure — this track can really test a team.”