In the first 24 races of the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season, Brad Keselowski was winless and outside the top five in the standings. In a span of just two weeks to round out the regular season, he is a two-time race winner in 2018.
On newer tires and with the help of a late race caution, Keselowski triumphed in a late battle with Denny Hamlin to score his first win in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The weekend was marred by rain, forcing qualifying to be canceled and the race to be moved to Monday afternoon. With the grid being set by owner’s points, Kyle Busch started on the pole alongside Kevin Harvick, while Daniel Suárez and Martin Truex Jr. were ordered to the rear after failing inspection. Landon Cassill and David Starr also started at the back for unapproved adjustments.
Busch led the race early as as he maintained a steady pace over Harvick. Shortly before the first competition caution on lap 11, Harvick pitted, but was hit with an uncontrolled tire penalty. Busch pulled onto pit road before suddenly ducking out in a feint, though he eventually decided to pit.
With Harvick’s penalty and Busch pitting, Hamlin stayed out to become the new leader, while Clint Bowyer also did not pit as he did so earlier. The restart took place on lap 15 as Busch took second from Bowyer.
The second competition caution occurred on lap 30; prior to the yellow, drivers like Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Rick Stenhouse Jr. pitted, though Stenhouse received a speeding penalty. Hamlin pitted to relinquish the lead, while Busch stayed out to inherit the position. Matt DiBenedetto suffered an uncontrolled tire violation. During his stop, Keselowski collided with Team Penske team-mate Ryan Blaney, causing damage to his right side.
The green flag waved on lap 34 with Busch leading. Seven laps later, Truex spun and brought out the caution, with drivers like Harvick pitting.
Busch led the field to the lap 45 restart with Bowyer next to him. Bowyer cleared his Stewart-Haas Racing partner to take the lead a lap later, and he went on to win the stage. Behind him were Busch, Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Chase Elliott, and Erik Jones.
Kyle Busch and Menard stayed out between stages as Blaney won the race off pit road. Stage #2 began on lap 55 as Menard began to drop.
On lap 58, Darrell Wallace Jr. collided with David Starr, while B.J. McLeod spun as the caution came out. The top eight stayed out during the ensuing yellow.
Lap 65 saw Busch leading the restart, while Matt Kenseth, who restarted fifth, began moving up the field. Two laps later, Alex Bowman and A.J. Allmendinger wrecked together, with Kurt Busch and Stenhouse escaping the crash. For Bowman, it placed him in a precarious position as a first-time winner would prevent him from qualifying for the playoffs.
Harvick took the lead on lap 70 with Kyle Busch pitting. William Byron, who restarted second, had a slow restart on the outside and began sliding. Bowman briefly returned to the race before exiting for further repairs.
On lap 76, J.J. Yeley spun. Some drivers like Keselowski and Byron pitted, while Harvick stayed out along with Bowyer and Blaney. Byron eventually suffered an uncontrolled tire penalty.
The green flag waved on lap 79 as Harvick led. Bowyer took the lead on lap 90 when Harvick pitted, but a strong charge by Kenseth and a cycle of green flag pit stops shuffled him to the lead. During his stop, Kyle Busch had a commitment line infraction, while Kenseth scored his first stage win of the year. Elliott finished second, followed by Jones, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suárez, Keselowski, Byron, Ryan Newman, and Jimmie Johnson. Although Busch finished outside the top ten, his stage finish was enough to secure the regular season championship and a 15-point bonus for the playoffs.
Byron stayed out and took the lead for the Stage #3 green flag on lap 105, but Bowyer’s stronger restart pushed him ahead as Byron started sinking. Busch eventually pitted for a flat rear tire, as did Chris Buescher for a smoking car.
Kurt Busch pitted on lap 136 to surrender the lead to Keselowski, who hit debris. Newman, who was running second, pitted on lap 140, while Johnson did so a lap later.
With 16 laps remaining, a debris caution occurred as Keselowski pitted, giving up first to Hamlin. During stops, Jamie McMurray placed himself in solid position to fight for the final playoff spot when he exited pit road in third.
The restart took place on lap 148. McMurray made contact with Bowyer, allowing Hamlin to pull ahead, though Bowyer stood his ground.
On lap 153, Landon Cassill slammed with Jeffrey Earnhardt, lifting the latter airborne. The ensuing wreck triggered another yellow flag as the leaders decided to stay out.
Hamlin and Bowyer comprised the front row for the lap 157 restart, but the latter spun his tires and Hamlin took off. On newer tires than Hamlin, Keselowski took second and caught up to the leader. The two made contact with Jones behind, but Keselowski was able to clear Hamlin exiting turn four as they came to the white flag.
Jones passed his Joe Gibbs Racing ally Hamlin for second, but could not catch Keselowski as he scored his second straight win and the first for Team Penske at Indianapolis.
“I gotta give credit to my crew chief Paul Wolfe,” Keselowski stated in a post-race interview with NBCSN. “He made a heck of a call to pit there, we pitted kind of late in the stage or late in that run. The yellow came out, we had new tires and we started eighth. That was kind of like he gave me the ball. […] He gave me the ball and I had to make a play, like hey, that’s gonna be tough.”
“We weren’t a dominant car by any means, but Paul and everybody executed an incredible race, and I just had to do my job. Here we are in Victory Lane at the Brickyard, I wish RP was here, I know he’s watching at home. What a day. This is the Brickyard, this is awesome, and it’s great.”
As Keselowski is not a first-time winner, Johnson (who finished sixteenth) and Bowman (who finished thirty-third) clinched spots in the playoffs.
The first race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will take place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the South Point 400. It is the first time in track history that it will host two Cup races in a season.