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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway

After a quiet start to the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Martinsville Speedway was predicted as the place to see some spark created. Uh, that’s not quite what happened.

From the green flag to the checkered, the STP 500 was one of the tamest short track races for the Cup Series with no cautions caused due to drivers being spun around, and no notable feuds set to build for weeks to come. Sure, there was some contact and it certainly ruined Erik Jones‘ day with a flat tire, but every tap or bump was minor. 

However, that is not to take away from the excitement as there was side-by-side racing around the paperclip all race long, with drivers battling for multiple laps for positions. There was also some close calls that easily could’ve created the spark we were looking for, too. Compared to the previous races this season, it still ranks as one of the better races thus far – but that also doesn’t say much.

Perhaps the spark missing was a real close battle for the victory at the end, or a challenge for the lead. Instead, Brad Keselowski dominated in pacing 446 of the 500 laps en route to the win. It just continues to prove where Team Penske has their program this year, marking their third victory following Joey Logano‘s Daytona 500, and Keselowski at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The success for Keselowski marks no surprise as he has always been strong at Martinsville, scoring 13 top-10’s in 19 starts. On top of his two trips to victory lane, he could’ve easily won a couple other times if not for contact mid-race, including with Matt Kenseth in 2015. As a whole, Team Penske has proven to be masters of the paperclip as Logano led the field to the green flag, and won last fall in dramatic fashion after pacing 309 laps to lock himself in the Championship 4.

If they continue the trend through the first six races this year, they could place themselves as the team to beat – but they’re not quite there yet. Both of them admitted at Auto Club Speedway that Kyle Busch has Joe Gibbs Racing’s on a different level at the intermediates, knowing that he was going to get by them eventually for the win as he did. Busch was fast once again, scoring a third-place finish, still allowing him to be the only driver to finish all six races in 2019 in the top-five.

On the flip side, Hendrick Motorsports has struggled thus far this year, but we won’t need to hear about how they have no top-five finishes recorded in 2019 anymore. Chase Elliott ran in the top-three all race long, pacing 49 laps, en route to a runner-up finish. 

Elliott was satisfied with the balance of his Chevrolet all day long, as the No. 9 team made no adjustments on each pit stop per the driver reporting, “It’s not perfect, but it’s too close to change.” He also began to make ground on Keselowski in the final five laps by using the second lane, but ultimately ran out of time.

As he stated, he could have possibly tried to run that line a couple laps earlier and then maybe would’ve had a chance to race Keselowski for the victory. However, there is risk vs. reward with that as at the time with 10 or even eight laps to go, Busch was right there ready to pounce. What if he tries the lane and finds himself passed, or turned around backwards? The window of opportunity only opened by Busch getting hung up with a lap car for a bit.

Now, everybody is left wondering what could have possibly been. Damned if you don’t, damned if you do right?

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Keselowski cruises to dominant Martinsville win

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in winning Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

An easy victory, right?

Well, not exactly. After Keselowski’s pit crew put him in the lead for a restart on Lap 380, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford spent the rest of the race fending off a determined charge from Chase Elliott.

Ultimately, Keselowski got to the finish line .594 seconds ahead of Elliott and 1.335 seconds in front of Kyle Busch, who was attempting to win his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in his 1,000th national series start. But it wasn’t easy, as both Elliott and Busch were close enough to capitalize on even the smallest potential mistake.

The victory was Keselowski’s second of the season, second at Martinsville and the 29th of his career. It was also Team Penske’s third triumph of the season in six races, equaling the total of Joe Gibbs Racing and the third Cup win for the Ford Mustang, which debuted in the series this year.

“The car was really good,” Keselowski said. “This Ford Mustang. … Ford worked really hard in the offseason to build these cars and make them real strong, and so far, so good. Just a great day for our team.

“Awesome execution on pit road, and big credit to (engine builder) Doug Yates and all the engine stuff. Those guys worked really hard. But just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver where you’ve got a great car.”

Before Keselowski could claim the grandfather clock trophy that goes to the winner, he had to go to school. Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was a superior short-run car, enabling Elliott to pass Keselowski for the lead on Lap 325, five laps after a restart necessitated by a caution for William Byron’s spin in Turn 4.

Keselowski followed Elliott for 48 green-flag laps — until Matt Tifft spun in Turn 2 on Lap 372 — and learned a valuable lesson.

“I don’t know if we were as good as the 9 car, Chase Elliott,” Keselowski said. “He was really strong, but he passed me there with about 200 to go, and I watched him and studied him and kind of broke it down and knew what I had to do to hold him off with that fast of a car.

“And we were able to pull it off that last run.”

Busch was hounding Elliott as fiercely as Elliott was dogging Keselowski, but when Busch was held up in traffic in the late going, Elliott began experimenting with a higher line in the corners.

“I felt like we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “I felt like when he did get the lead, there was a little advantage to being out front, being able to work traffic your way and kind of play off it and whatnot.

“But, yeah, I tried to move up there at the end, and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner. But I tried to get to him there in (Turn) 3 (on the final lap). I was pretty well content on moving him out of the way. But maybe next time.”

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin, who recovered from a penalty for an uncontrolled tire. Kevin Harvick was sixth, Clint Bowyer came home seventh, despite being sent to the rear twice for speeding on pit road. Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

After seeing fans and drivers contest the lack of passing and exciting racing on the intermediate tracks, NASCAR implemented a higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package. There were some positives, but it certainly did not deliver to the expectations touted before the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Through testing in January, pack racing was evident with the drivers unable to get away from each other through a 20-lap run. As a result, the restarts were predicted to be chaotic, and they certainly were. Drivers were three-wide around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway as they got runs on each other virtue of the air being disturbed by the new high rear spoiler. 

You also had the ability to pass back and forth over the course of  a run, with drivers making their way forward as much as they went backwards. Kyle Busch made his way back up to third despite a pit road speeding penalty in the second stage, while Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski swapped the top spot back and forth. There was also a battle between Busch and Logano in stage two for first, as well. 

However, drivers having to rely on other cars to get runs and draft with fellow competitors really doesn’t constitute to what “true racing” is supposed to be in saying everybody go as hard as they can with their own equipment. That is where the package has it’s biggest downfall with several drivers and fans.

“The cars don’t have any speed,” Busch said post-race. “You’re wide open just trying to suck off of any car that you can that’s in front of you to get a draft. I was running 31-flats when I was chasing those leaders down and then once I got there, I stalled out to 31.40s because the wind was just so bad behind those guys that you couldn’t corner anymore, you couldn’t maneuver. I couldn’t run low if they ran low and I couldn’t run high if they ran high so you’re always trying to figure out which way to go.”

Frankly, those battles were great to watch, but they don’t make up for the rest of the run.

The further you got into a run, the more spread out the cars got and essentially, you were stuck watching everybody run single file – and it happened only 15 laps into a run for the first stage, compared to 20 like testing. The second and third restarts would see the field stay closer for a longer period of time, thanks to everybody being held by the leader playing the strategy card – Keselowski taking two tires to start stage two, while Kurt Busch stayed out in the final stage.

You can see the idea of keeping the cars closer together falling apart when you see less than 20 cars on the lead lap. The drivers were even bored with Clint Bowyer telling his team that it was “pretty boring” and taking them for a lap by leaving the radio on for a full lap, letting the engine noise play, without any crack in the throttle.

Anybody remember the days of having to watch the drivers battle against the handling of the cars, cracking the gas at times due to sliding sideways? Darrell Waltrip touting “the cars are more driveable at this speed,” doesn’t make the fans feel any better when the racing puts them to sleep. 

The new package also showed the more things change, the more things stay the same as the familiar races reigned at the front of the field. The Big Three from last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch), along with 2018 series champion Logano spent the day in the top-five, now joined by Logano’s teammate.

The ideology that the new package would allow some of the smaller teams to mix it up at the front was lost today, too. 

NASCAR on Fox’s TV Coverage has been a constant topic of discussion, and not in the lightest way possible. On top of fans criticizing Michael Waltrip‘s “Grid Walk” segment for the goofiness and the commentary heard from the booth, they need to be reminded about how to show a race properly.

As the leaders spread out single-file 15 to 20 laps into a run, they chose to focus on them and talk about drivers individually. Why not show “zoo-like” back half of the field that Aric Almirola described to give us some entertainment?

Additionally, they also chose to take three commercial breaks in the first 40 laps, and missed the first batch of leaders heading in for green flag pit stops. They also showed advertisements, rather than the three-way battle for first that was shaping up. 

If NASCAR ever wants to make the package more exciting to watch, they need to consult with their broadcast partners in showcasing what they are doing. 

Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson were both touted early for their speed and ability, with thoughts of them being in the discussion for the victory. Unfortunately, they were both handed a pit road penalty that they were unable to overcome.

For Larson, it marks the second straight week in a row that he has seen his run fooled by something happened on pit road. He showed the speed last year to contend for victories and be part of the Championship 4, though saw his playoff chances folded by engine failures. He needs to find some consistency if he is even going to dream of making a run this year.

Kyle Busch was also fooled by a pit road penalty, caught speeding as previously mentioned. While he overcame loose wheels in both the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series to win, he was only able to get back to third today. 

NASCAR may have gotten the officiating right in the race per the rulebook, but that doesn’t mean they are not insane in the process. Larson and Dillon were both penalizing for “having too many men over the wall.” The additional crew member didn’t service the car, nor they did step on pit road. Essentially, they reached over to help retrieve the tires as they were being rolled over to the wall and touched the ground. 

There’s one thing to make rules for safety, and another for fair competition. Then there’s insanity, which is what this is. Essentially, if I slip my footing a little and touch the ground, my team is screwed? That seems a little harsh.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Brad Keselowski battles through illness for Atlanta victory

HAMPTON, Ga. – Too sick to start practice on Saturday, Brad Keselowski found the cure to what ailed him in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Still suffering from the effects of stomach flu, Keselowski held off a charging — and frustrated — Martin  Truex Jr. in the closing circuits of the 325-lap Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and powered his No. 2 Team Penske Ford across the finish line .218 seconds ahead of Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The victory was Keselowski’s first of the season and the first for the new Ford Mustang in the Cup series. The 2012 champion won for the second time at Atlanta and for the 60th in Roger Penske equipment (all series combined), breaking a tie with the late Mark Donohue.

Despite his illness, Keselowski reveled in the accomplishment.

“I think any win means a lot, but that’s a big number,” Keselowski said. “Now I get to wear that yellow Mark Donohue helmet, so here we go — we’re going to wear it next week.

“But what a tremendous honor. This day is … Wow, I don’t even know how to put it in words. I’m just excited for this team, first race with the new rules or whatever they’re called now, and to be able to win it, that’s really special.”

After he pulled out to a substantial lead after the final restart on Lap 283 — following a caution for a pit road accident involving Ryan Preece and B.J. McLeod — Keselowski had two concerns: an overheating engine and tire issues that had forced teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney to pit road for unscheduled stops late in the race.

As Keselowski was nursing his car toward the finish in the final 10 laps, Truex closed dramatically, cutting Keselowski’s advantage to .181 seconds with two circuits left. On Lap 324 Keselowski blocked Truex’s line off Turn 4 and hammered it to the finish line a lap later.

“We ran over a piece of debris with, I don’t know, probably 50 laps to go and overheated really bad, and I thought there was no way this engine would make it to the end,” Keselowski said. “But (engine builder) Doug Yates and his team, they do a great job.

“I’m pretty sure it’s all used up, Doug, but it’s in Victory Lane, so that’s OK, right?”

As he chased Keselowski, Truex grew frustrated with lapped traffic, particularly with outside front-row starter Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was running in the “lucky dog” position, hugging the bottom lane of the race track.

Because the fifth and final caution had interrupted a cycle of pit stops after all the lead-lap drivers save Logano and eventual third-place finisher Kurt Busch had come to pit road, Truex restarted behind lapped cars on Lap 283 after he and the majority of the field took wave-arounds.

“It was a shame we got put in that position on that last restart, but that’s the way the caution fell,” Truex said. “Man, I could taste that one. I really wanted that first Atlanta win. Just the 17 (Stenhouse) rode there in front of us forever and ever running the bottom, and I kept telling him I needed the bottom (through spotters), and these cars are just so bad in dirty air that he was holding me up really bad.

“Once I got around him, I got to the 2 car (Keselowski) in two laps. I just needed one more. Unfortunate we had a great car, and like I said, the guys did a great job. Just a little upset. We had the best car. We probably should have won that one.”

Stenhouse Jr. got a strong start from the top lane at the initial green flag and charged past pole winner Aric Almirola off Turn 4 to lead the first lap. Almirola got the spot back on Lap 2, but two lead changes in the first two laps was nevertheless a promising omen for the new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package NASCAR introduced this year.

The second stage of the race produced a compelling battle for the lead between defending race winner Kevin Harvick and first stage winner Kyle Larson. Those two drivers swapped the top spot nine times between Laps 88 and 162, with Harvick prevailing in the second stage.

But the handling of Harvick’s Ford tightened up in the late going as shadows shrouded Turns 1 and 2, and the 2014 series champion rolled home in fourth place. Zapped with a pit road speeding penalty and sent to the back of the field for a restart on Lap 228—after Kyle Busch cut a right rear tire to cause the fourth caution—Larson struggled in traffic and finished 12th.

Clint Bowyer ran fifth, with Kyle Busch recovering to finish sixth. Erik Jones, Almirola, Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Uncharacteristic Talladega Puts Keselowski on Verge of Elimination

Brad Keselowski is the winningest and arguably best superspeedway racer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with six victories.

After Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired with 10 restrictor plate wins last year, Keselowski took the reigns as the favorite when Daytona and Talladega appear on the schedule.

He started the 1000Bulbs.com 500 looking to capitalize on this success, continue a strong championship run and tie Earnhardt Jr. with six victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Team Penske won six of the last eight Talladega races entering Sunday, splitting the wins between Keselowski and Joey Logano. Despite a poor qualifying effort that placed the three Team Penske cars in positions 18-20 on the grid, many expected them to move forward quickly.

They advanced through the field early but couldn’t top the formidable Ford fleet of Stewart-Haas Racing.

SHR ran first through fourth for much of the day, leaving Keselowski and teammates with little opportunity to leapfrog the fastest cars.

The No. 2 car did pace the field for 21 laps, and Ryan Blaney led for six, but once the four-car train of SHR returned to the lead, it proved difficult to reclaim it.

This prevented the usual showcase of speed and talent from Keselowski at Talladega, in a race where he couldn’t afford to lose ground in the championship standings.

After entering the day seventh on the playoff grid with 21 points over ninth-place, running out of fuel during Sunday’s overtime finish led the No. 2 to a 27th place finish. Now Keselowski sits ninth in the title battle, 18 points outside the eight advancing positions.

Following three consecutive victories to conclude the regular season at Darlington and Indianapolis and to begin the playoffs at Las Vegas, many ranked Keselowski with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. as the championship favorites.

A solid night at Richmond Raceway where he led 67 laps and finished ninth followed by a strong run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL before crashing out as the leader, kept expectations high in the Round of 16.

Now a 14th at Dover and 27th at Talladega puts Keselowski essentially in a must-win situation heading to the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway. Running up front and dominating or taking advantage of the misfortune of others may be his only path forward.

However, he has not fared well at Kansas in recent years, with only one top-10 finish in the last four races.

If Keselowski is to remain a title contender and be among the final four for the second consecutive year, a championship-caliber performance will be required next Sunday at Kansas.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Bank of America ROVAL 400

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have been entertaining already, and we’re just getting started with the first round. 

Ever since the announcement of the layout and testing, the ROVAL has sparked fear for the drivers heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

If you were watch through just the first two stages, though, it appeared they worked out all of the kinks. Just a few drivers got off the track during those laps, with clean racing throughout the field. It got spread out at times, but there’s no denying that the infield portion and front stretch chicane did not promote passing as drivers moved their way up and down the grid.  

Let’s face it – though. The fear probably sparked a calmness, just be clean and solid through there as once we got to the last stage, you could stay the gloves were essentially off. Everything went haywire quickly, beginning with A.J. Allmendinger‘s dives on the restarts. However, it still appeared there’d be a calm ending with everyone wondering whether the leaders had enough fuel as there were small battles for position.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. then changed everything, as he got into the wall and brought out the caution with 10 laps to go. With any road course, we have learned something – the later in the race, the less patience, and that only means one thing – chaos.

Tums Heartburn Turn 1 had sparked a lot of conversation going into the weekend about how tight it would be on restarts, and that showed. Race leader Brad Keselowski, along with the first four cars on the outside, overshot the entry and hit the wall. 

“We’d just been there the longest we had been on tires and I guess all of us are just stupid and don’t know where to break for the corner considering what our tires look like and so we just all drove off into a 90-degree wall for something to do because we had nothing else better to do,” Kyle Busch said. “That kind of sucked, but guess it’s a good thing it didn’t matter for us.”

It appeared Martin Truex Jr. inheriting the lead would allow him to get another win this year after getting a good restart with three laps to go. That was until Jimmie Johnson entered the fray. It was shaping up to be a close battle and would’ve been interesting to see them go through the final chicane side-by-side to the line. However, a wheel-hop for the driver of the No. 48 caused him to spin, tagging Truex in the process, sending them both around.

Ryan Blaney, who had quietly kept himself in the top-10 throughout the race and avoided chaos despite being right in the middle through the final laps, got by the pair and scored the victory.

Risk vs. Reward is something that will be discussed for days for Johnson now. If he would’ve finished second, he moves on to the Round of 12 of the playoffs. Instead, the eighth-place finish sees him eliminated in a tie-breaker. It’d be easy to say that he should’ve given up the fight for the win, but we’re looking at a seven-time champion who hasn’t won a race this season. Additionally, his Hendrick Motorsports team hasn’t shown the speed to be right there and contend for the championship with the likes of Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing. Did desperation take over?

“I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive,” he said post-race. “But we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”

The incident for Johnson turned into the perfect blessing for Kyle Larson, though.

Larson had led 47 laps before he was involved in the crash on the restart with eight laps to go. If Johnson doesn’t make the move, Larson is the one of the four drivers who does not move onto the next round. However, managing to drive a hurt car around the 17-turn course, and make a last lap pass on Jeffrey Earnhardt – who had been wrecked off the final turn by Daniel Hemric, allowed him to finish  25th and advance to the next round.

“We had a lot of right-front damage and we kind of knew the right front would blow if I ran hard,” he said. “But, I ran hard through (Turns) 3 and 4 and blew a right front and got into the fence. I could see the No. 96 (Jeffrey Earnhardt) and I knew I needed that point to get to the tie-breaker and hit the wall again. Thankfully, we got the tie-breaker.”

Along with Johnson, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin failed to transfer, along with Austin Dillon. Jones and Dillon saw their races end early due to damage, while Hamlin had to make an unscheduled pit stop early and was unable to make up the track position needed.

The unexpected chaos of the ROVAL, combined with close action at Richmond and mayhem as Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it’s safe to say we’re off to an exciting start for this year’s playoffs. So, what can we expect in the Round of 12 with a monster in Dover International Speedway, the craziness of plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway, and a trip to the windy city with Kansas Speedway?

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: South Point 400

If you didn’t know the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs were starting, you certainly do after the chaos that ensured during the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After all the talk about the big three throughout the year, Brad Keselowski is making it all about the No. 2 as he scored his third straight victory in a row, allowing him to lock into the Round of 12. Although the wins may surprise, the fact they came after a stretch of seven races that included five finishes outside of the top-15 make the current streak even more shocking.

However, Team Penske has been in the thick of things all year long, just missing out in victories throughout the process. Cue the six top-fives for Keselowski before this recent string, along with success by Joey Logano and consistency from Ryan Blaney. With all three cars running 1-2-3 at one point, the tide may be shifting in the Captain’s favor.

RELATED:  Mitchell Breuer spoke with each of the Penske trio prior to the playoffs for their thoughts

Behind the pace shown by Team Penske was mayhem, though, as 11 of the 16 playoff drivers encountered trouble at one point or another throughout the event. Some were able to rebound – Kyle Larson‘s runner-up despite early contact with the wall, Blaney’s fifth despite his contact with the wall, and Kyle Busch‘s late drive through the field to finish seventh after going for a slide through the grass. However, there are now six competitors finding themselves in a bit of a hole after placing outside of the top-20.

The key for those drivers is the bonus points accumulated during the season, which Kevin Harvick should be smiling rather than saying that he’s isn’t happy about anything right now post-race. Despite finishing 39th after blowing a tire, he currently ranks fourth on the grid, 38 points above the cut-off line. That’s a much better spot to be in with a short track (Richmond Raceway) the unknowns of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval looming, as he could be Denny Hamlin right now sitting in the basement, 20 points behind the cut-off.

If you eliminated the chaos that ensued, the event was actually pretty solid with side-by-side battles throughout the race as drivers were able to run three different grooves to find speed. Now let’s see if we can keep this action going in the weeks to come.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Brad Keselowski wins a Vegas Race that Trips Up Most Playoff Contenders

LAS VEGAS – In a war of attrition that caused a multitude of problems for the majority of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders, Brad Keselowski emerged unscathed with his third straight victory in the series and the 500th triumph for Team Penske in all forms of racing combined.

Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Playoff opener for NASCAR’s foremost series, went to overtime, lasting five laps longer than the scheduled 267. But Keselowski held the top spot through three tension-laden restarts to beat runner-up Kyle Larson to the finish line by 1.276 seconds on the final two-lap shootout.

With his third victory of the season, his third at Las Vegas and the 27th of his career, Keselowski guaranteed himself a spot in the second round of the Playoffs.

“Team Penske-500 wins today,” Keselowski said. “It’s a huge day for the Captain (team owner Roger Penske). I expect he’s watching (from the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma Raceway). Hey, boss!

“To start off the Playoffs with a win is really strong. I know it’s three in a row and all that great stuff, but it’s really a testament to this team… We weren’t as fast as the 78 car (third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr.), but we nailed the pit stops and the restarts.”

Most of the 16 Playoff contenders just got nailed-and decisively.

Kevin Harvick, the series leader in victories with seven this year, blew a tire on Lap 148 and rocketed into the Turn 1 wall. Pole winner Erik Jones, running behind Harvick, couldn’t avoid the wreck and plowed into Harvick’s Ford. Both cars were eliminated, with Harvick finishing 39th and Jones 40th.

In a similar incident in Turn 4 on Lap 212, Chase Elliott was collected against the outside wall when Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet turned sideways in front of him. Elliott fell out of the race in 36th place.

Denny Hamlin’s spin off Turn 4 on Lap 247 caused the ninth caution and subsequent restart that allowed Keselowski to take the lead from Larson, who had passed the No. 2 Team Penske Ford on Lap 245 and had the long-run speed to win the race, had the event stayed incident-free to the finish.

Jimmie Johnson showed some of his best speed of the season, but his No. 48 Chevrolet sustained heavy damage in a Lap 257 accident that also involved Playoff drivers Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch. Johnson, a seven-time series champion, finished 22nd, two laps down, one position behind Busch and one ahead of Bowyer.

Bowman came home 19th and currently occupies the 12th position in the standings, with the Playoff field set to be cut from 16 drivers to 12 two races hence at Charlotte.

Kyle Busch survived contact with the outside wall, a spin through the infield grass and damage to the front of his No. 18 Toyota to finish seventh.

Truex, who won the first stage, took the series lead by two points over Kyle Busch. Keselowski is 18 points back in third place, with Harvick 27 points behind in fourth, thanks to the 50 Playoff points he accumulated during the regular season.

The four drivers currently on the outside when it comes to advancing to the next round are Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Hamlin.

Five of the race’s 12 cautions came in the last 40 laps, as the accidents took their toll on one Playoff driver after another.

“I didn’t think it was ever going to end,” said Keselowski, the third driver to win three consecutive races this season, joining Harvick and Kyle Busch. “I was worried about running out of gas there at the end.”

Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney ran fourth and fifth, respectively. Aric Almirola finished sixth and Playoff driver Austin Dillon came home 11th after starting from the rear of the field because of unapproved adjustments to the body of his car.

“Brad clearly found a horseshoe,” said Truex, the defending series champion. “Three races in a row he’s won, and he has not had the best car.

“Obviously, he hasn’t led the most laps in any of those races, and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short run speed. I think, clearly, it’s pretty obvious how it worked out. He’s hot right now. He’s on a streak. That’s the way it goes.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Team Penske Coming Alive At Right Time

LAS VEGAS, Nev — There may not be an organization heading into the playoffs with more momentum than Team Penske.

Brad Keselowski, not only captured a win in the Southern 500 but went a week later to win the Brickyard 400 too, taking home two of the biggest races of the season.

“I think heading into the playoffs; we’re in a decent position, ranked fourth right now, of course, we want to climb to first but, there’s a lot of great competition that won’t make it easy, nor should they,” Keselowski told POPULAR SPEED. “So with that in mind, the opportunity is in front of us, and we’ll see what we can deliver.”

The Michigan-native’s win was the first for Penske, since teammate Joey Logano’s victory at Talladega in April, and only the second and third throughout the entire season for the organization.

“Yeah, we’ve definitely had some highs and lows throughout the year, and I feel like we started the season relatively strong, and we’re ending the regular season strong, and had some highs and lows in the middle there and we’ll see what we can put together here in the playoffs,” Keselowski said.

However, the success isn’t just solely from the No. 2 team, as the other drivers in the Penske stable have shown strength as well.

At Bristol and Darlington, not did Logano finished in the top-five, but he led laps in both races;  though his focus remains on what his team can do in the playoffs.

“Yeah, I think we’ve made some gains over the last few weeks,” Logano told POPULAR SPEED. “I think the true test will be Vegas, where everybody brings everything they got heading for the playoffs, and you have more of a typical mile and half race track. I think that’s kind of a good baseline to know where you are it.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Blaney hasn’t finished worse than 15th since Daytona in addition to being in contention for wins throughout his first year with the organization.

“I think our speed has been pretty close, I think the 12 car speed has been really good but just haven’t been able to close out in races where we’ve been in contention,” Blaney told POPULAR SPEED. “But, hopefully with him (Keselowski) winning the last few races, gives us some good momentum and I think our cars are closing the gap to some other teams that have been really strong this year. Hopefully, we can keep closing that gap here in the last few where it truly matters.”

The Penske trio isn’t getting ahead of themselves, knowing there is still work that can be done heading into the final ten races of the season.

“I think we got to keep working on our bodies, that’s probably our biggest piece right now,” Logano said. “We got to get our bodies a little bit better to be able to compete with those guys.”

Keselowski and Logano will see an extended advantage heading into the playoffs, with 16 and 11-points over the cutoff. Meanwhile, Blaney owns a four-point cushion over 13th thanks to his stage wins throughout the year.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Brickyard 400

Admittedly going into the Big Machine Vodka Brickyard 400 on Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was expecting a snoozefest. However, the race actually was solid throughout from beginning to end.

Throughout the event, whether battles on the track for position or strategy, there was always something to keep your focus and intrigue as to what would happen next. Combined with a thrilling battle for the win, and you can certainly give you the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event a B+.

Denny Hamlin trying to hold on with his old tires, combined with Brad Keselowski coming through with four new Goodyears saw the pair battle side-by-side on a restart with three laps to go. They may have rubbed each other – but hey, rubbin’ is racing, right? But nobody wrecked each other, and there’s a highlight reel to take moving forward.

The contact, along with the late-race cautions left Hamlin frustrated, obviously, as he stated that the yellows were caused by “meaningless” drivers in the back half of the field. To those drivers, every position matters – just like for you at the front. Sometimes, it doesn’t go as planned.

Even without the late-race caution, the race had delivered to that point as previously mentioned. You had drivers moving forward their forward, as well as those falling back further in the pack. There was even a battle shaping up for the win between Hamlin and Clint Bowyer at that time, too.

Notably, restarts produced the biggest excitement as they always do due to the space at Indianapolis. Therefore, concern was there about when we got into long runs, especially when you have Dale Earnhardt Jr. saying, “As the laps go, the tires get hotter, and the pass gets harder,” but that still held some interest. Cue Bowyer’s hard work to get second mid-race as that took awhile in setting Kurt Busch up, but he did get the job done.

Though if you tuned in at the beginning, you may have been ready to turn it off quickly with the scheduled cautions. It had me flashing back to the Indianapolis race where they threw a caution like every 15-20 laps due to tire issues. With the stage cautions that are already there every week, only one competition caution was needed at the beginning rather than two. Then if they saw tire issues at Lap 10 (or say 15 if changed), they could easily have added another.

Other Observations to Consider……

Kevin Harvick proved why he is one of the drivers in the “big three” as he fought back to a fourth-place finish despite a pair of pit road issues. But has the big three turned into the dynamic duo? Following a brake issue on Monday, Martin Truex Jr. will enter the playoffs with four straight finishes outside of the top-10. Could the announcement about Furniture Row Racing’s demise be affecting things deeper than originally thought?

By the way, it was Kyle Busch winning the regular season championship after finishing eighth following a pair of issues throughout the day, including a late-race flat tire. He and Harvick will enter the playoffs tied at the top of the standings. Let the games begin.

Alex Bowman may be the last driver getting into the playoffs, and his team will need some momentum fast if they’re going to upset the projections. The only problem is he has finished the last two races outside of the top-20. it seems the momentum Hendrick Motorsports was gaining is slowly fading away again as Chase Elliott was their highest finisher in 15th.

It is worth noting, though, that Elliott ran in the top-10 most of the day until a late-race decision to pit by Alan Gusfatson while the top-10 stayed out. That same decision to pit won Keselowski the race, though. 

– You can’t blame Jamie McMurray for trying to pull the hail marry by not pitting with 17 laps to go to restart third to try and make the playoffs as you find out your kicked out of your ride for 2019. He still walked out of there with a top-10, anyway, placing seventh. 

If you missed it, the Associated Press opened the day by reporting that Chip Ganassi told them that McMurray will not be in the No. 1, but has been offered a ride for the Daytona 500 and another position within the team. 

– Nobody expected Matt Kenseth to get a stage win, but that’s what he did today after Roush Fenway Racing found themselves running in the top-10 throughout the entire first half of the race. The past series champion just missed the mark at the end of the day, though, placing 12th. 

Darrell Wallace Jr. also had a brake failure for the second time this season, and continues his streak of no top-15’s since Daytona International Speedway in July. Remember all the hype that he began the year with?

– Another week of NBCSN choosing when to go to commercial wrong as discussed plenty times before. Who goes to break with just five laps complete? They could’ve also showed the middle portion of the field when they were three-wide after the top 13 drivers stayed out while the rest pitted, rather than showing the single-file top-seven competitors.

– Having a driver’s on-board camera available for viewing via Twitter the whole race is a good way to promote the sport. Now how about we get that available to everybody worldwide rather than just based on people’s locations?

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.