Brad Keselowski took his first win of the season with a dominant performance at the Bristol Motor Speedway, his first since winning the night race at the Tennessee speed-bowl last summer. 'Special K' led more laps than anyone else on his way to victory lane, but was made to work hard for it with the Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth and a gaggle of Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas on his tail throughout the closing stages.
“Matt didn’t make it easy,” Keselowski said. “That’s his job, to not make it easy on me. He raced me hard; I raced him hard, rubbed a little bit. That’s good racing.”
Keselowski was elated to win Bristol a second time, and moves up to 13th in points as a result.
“This is a track where champions win,” Keselowski said. “I’m just thrilled to death to be here in victory lane at Bristol again, one of my favourite places for sure. If this team keeps performing like they are, we’ll get more.
“The goal is to win a Sprint Cup championship. One win certainly doesn't achieve that, but it's a great step.”
Scoring the win was a huge relief not only for Keselowski, who was denied a great result last week with fuel pump issues, but also for Dodge, who became the fourth manufacturer in as many races to go to Victory Lane after Kenseth (Ford), Denny Hamlin (Toyota) and Tony Stewart (Chevrolet). Dodge only have Robby Gordon Motorsports signed up to run their cars in 2013 after Team Penske announced they would switch to Ford, and are working hard to sign new teams to their stable.
However it all could have been very different for Keselowski; the blue deuce only narrowly avoided disaster early in the race when Furniture Row Racing driver Regan Smith tapped the back of Kasey Kahne on lap 23, causing the Hendrick Motorsports no. 5 to spin back across the track – just missing Keselowski – into the path of Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Harvick attained only a minimal amount of damage and went on to finish 11th, but the rest were not so lucky, each spending a lengthy period on the sidelines before rejoining multiple laps down. A distraught Kahne, whose move to Hendrick was supposed to coincide with a title tilt, has now crashed in 3 of the first 4 races and is in danger of dropping out of the top 35 in owner's points.
“This is the worst way to start the season,” said Kahne. “I have the fastest car every week and something happened. … I listened too much to my spotter, I guess.”
“Kasey probably thought he was clear and that ended up in a wreck,” said a disappointed Edwards, who could only recover to 39th place. “It is hard to put 43 cars on a half-mile going this fast and not wreck. It is too bad it happened this early. We have a really great race car and I was excited to race today. I wanted to drive more.”
On a day which saw a startlingly low attendance of 102,000 for a track which traditionally has a sell-out crowd, Brian Vickers marked his return to NASCAR with an accomplished run to fifth, behind his two team-mates Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Vickers spent a total of 125 laps out front, a tally bettered only by Keselowski, and is looking forward to building on his solid start in his 5 remaining races in Mark Martin's no.55.
“When it's your only one, you have to make it count,” Vickers said. “This was pretty good and it felt really good when we were out there leading. It would have been awesome to hold onto that, but it's the first time back so I can't complain about that.
“[I'm] so proud to be a part of getting all three cars in the top-five. I can't thank Michael Waltrip and Rob Kaufmann and everyone at MWR enough – I don't know those two guys that well, but I can tell a lot about them by the group of people they've built and the team they've built.”
“We've got a lot of confidence,” Truex said after moving up to fourth in points. “We just got a good organization right now, a good bunch of people. We got three cars that seem to go to the racetrack and run really well each week. We’re able to feed off each other. We really showed that today all running up front at different parts of the day. All season our cars have been strong. Across the board it’s been a lot of hard work and dedication by the team. In the end, all the people doing the jobs the best they can do and things have been working out for us.”
Behind the MWR contingent was Jeff Burton in the Richard Childress no.31, the Ganassi twins Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya, Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson and Burton's RCR team-mate Paul Menard, who is now 10th in points after scoring his third top 10 of the season.
Several expected contenders had disappointing afternoons, most notably the front-row starters Greg Biffle; the points leader after three successive third place finishes in the first three races, and Penske's AJ Allmendinger. Although pole-man Biffle led 41 laps, and the Dinger 54, neither were in contention by the end, finishing 13th and 17th respectively. That this was the best result Allmendinger has scored so far this season was academic; he now sits 26th in points.
Last week's Vegas winner Stewart was running inside the top 10 when he was collected by the understeering no.33 RCR machine of Brendan Gaughan. The defending Cup-Series champion was lucky to escape his brush with the wall, which brought out the race's final caution with 22 laps left, en route to an eventual finish of 14th. Jeff Gordon was another to have a good run ended with contact; an innocuous looking brush with Dale Earnhardt Jr. enough to cut down a tyre on the no.24 Hendrick Chevrolet and send the 4-time champion into the wall.
“I think we bumped more than we should have,” Gordon said of his contact with Earnhardt's no.88. “We definitely didn't hit in the right location. We didn't hit that hard. We were a little too tight, and he was pretty good on the restart. I know it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day.”
After escaping punishment for wrecking Mark Martin last week, this time Junior was not to be allowed to escape scot-free, and was slapped with a pit-lane speeding penalty to add insult to injury.
“If there's a track where you can lean on each other a little bit, this oughta be the place,” Junior said. “But we barely rubbed on the back straightaway.
“To me, it was good hard racing, and the pipes on my car cut the left-rear tire down, and I feel terrible that that happened to my teammate. Those guys were working really hard, and they were running really good. But there's four of us out there. We're bound to run into each other and race each other once in a while. I'm frustrated about the finish, but we did run good. We ran better this year here than we did last year. Things are looking up for our team.”
Among this writer's personal highlights for the weekend was the driver introductions, a Bristol tradition, and in particular, Denny Hamlin's performance of Cali Swag District's Dougie.