Brad Keselowski gets through the chaos for his third straight victory to open playoffs

NASCAR


LAS VEGAS — Paul Wolfe, celebrating his third consecutive victory as crew chief for Brad Keselowski, laughed at the question.

“If I had told you before Darlington that you’d win three races just by the end of the year, would you have thought that was likely?

Wolfe admits he’s not the most optimistic person. Neither is Keselowski. But even the most optimistic person wouldn’t have predicted three consecutive wins for a driver who had just one top-15 finish in the previous five races.

Keselowski and Wolfe were left laughing, high-fiving and celebrating after capturing the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, following wins the previous two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

“We probably weren’t the best today with respect to being the fastest car,” Keselowski said after the victory celebration. “But my team was the best today with respect to executing on the pit stops, putting us in a position to control the race and then getting through the chaos.”

Keselowski’s third consecutive victory came at a track not necessarily known for chaos. Yeah, it has had its moments (the Kyle BuschJoey Logano fight comes to mind), but it tends to allow a driver to break away from the field on a 1.5-mile track.

Then again, LVMS has never played host to a playoff race. As part of a realignment and a $2.5 million check from the Vegas visitors authority, LVMS now has two races.

The traditional NASCAR weekend came in March. Now it has an additional one in September, and a sweltering 100-degree day combined with the pressure of needing to perform in the playoffs likely contributed to this being one of the more unpredictable events — and that goes well beyond the Keselowski victory.

“I’m sure 100 degrees plays a factor in that [craziness],” Keselowski said. “It’s so darned hot that cars were blowing tires and things were happening that probably wouldn’t have happened if it was cooler out.”

While playoff cars took the first seven spots in the final rundown, plenty of playoff drivers found themselves in the back half of the 40-car field in a race that featured 12 cautions, including 28 yellow-flag laps and a 10-minute red flag over the final 69 circuits.

Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones were 39th and 40th after a Harvick blown tire. Chase Elliott finished 36th after an accident where he was collected by Jamie McMurray. Denny Hamlin pretty much spun on his own trying to get too much from an ill-handling race car to finish 32nd. Late-race problems foiled potential strong runs for Alex Bowman (19th), Kurt Busch (21st), Jimmie Johnson (22nd) and Clint Bowyer (23rd).

Even those who finished well didn’t avoid the chaos. Kyle Busch spun and rallied to finish seventh.

“We’ve been struggling for four, five weeks in a row,” Busch said. “There’s just something not right. I don’t know what it is. There’s just bad aura going right now.

“We’ve got to switch that around, change that around, clean that up. It’s not the time of year to be having that stuff.”

Considering all the chaos, it was hard for Martin Truex Jr. to feel frustrated finishing third even though “for the most of the day, it was pretty clear who had the dominant car.”

“This place is really fast, but when it gets slick like this, it’s really tough to drive,” Truex said. “These things are a handful when you get back in traffic. It was a tough day.

“Obviously some guys had really rough days, so it was a good day to just be solid.”

If this is any indication of what the playoffs will be like, expect possibly more Keselowski wins and drivers who have had solid regular seasons all of a sudden seeing their seasons on the brink.

“I’ve tried to think of the playoffs as one week at a time, and I’ve tried not to get too far ahead [on what will happen],” Keselowski said when asked to make a prediction. “I think I’ve made that mistake in the past.”

The only driver among the 16 in the championship hunt guaranteed a spot in the next round is Keselowski, thanks to his win. The remaining 11 spots will go to a driver who wins Richmond or the Charlotte road course with the remainder set by points. Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Hamlin all find themselves outside the cutoff amid the chaos.

Logano is in decent shape after his fourth-place finish, but he wanted that automatic bid so badly that he and his Team Penske teammate Keselowski banged doors following the next-to-last restart.

“He was spinning his tires and the 78 [of Truex] had a good run behind me, and I knew I had to make a move one way or the other because the 78 was going to get me,” Logano said.

“I was able to get to his outside and we door-banged each other down the backstretch.”

They stayed straight. That just seems to be the way it has gone for Keselowski in the past three weeks.

Keselowski takes his unpredictable trophies and knows that’s racing. Wolfe will, too, even if he can almost laugh at the way the past three races have set up perfectly for him and Keselowski to be in position at the end to take advantage of a pit crew that has peaked at the right time.

“When we’re put in position to have an opportunity, we seem to be able to handle the pressure, and [Keselowski] does a good job with that,” Wolfe said.

“I think he’s shown that the last three weeks with what he’s been able to do when there’s so much on the line. It’s really amazing.”

Keselowski’s success seemed to even leave his teammate Logano dejected.

“You get momentum and confidence on your side and you can do things that you don’t think you’re capable,” Logano said.

“The 78 [of Truex] was probably the fastest, but he’d take off slow for three laps, which prevented him from really winning the race. If it goes green, he’s going to drive away.”

Truex didn’t mince words on analyzing the finish, and wondered what would have happened if he had a car set up to take advantage of more short runs. The longest green-flag run over the final 48 laps was just 11 laps.

“Brad clearly found a horseshoe,” Truex said. “Three races in a row he’s won and he has not had the best car. If you want to really talk about the sport being what it is, you’ve got to look at that.

“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.”

Keselowski heard those comments and had no argument. He believes Kyle Larson was the best at Darlington while he had just a car that at best was a third-place car. At Indy, he figures he had a 15th-place car but worked the strategy well.

“[Truex] is spot on,” Keselowski said. “We have not been the best car the last three weeks. … I feel like we stole the last three races.

“We’re not complaining, but we still have a lot of work to do to go out there and win heads up without those issues.”



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