Brad Keselowski took the lead in Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway when the two cars in front of him tangled off Turn 2.
That was all the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford needed to collect his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
From a restart on Lap 91, Keselowski chased pole winner and race leader Ross Chastain, who won the first and second stages in his maiden run in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. On Lap 104, Keselowski pulled ahead in Turn 3 but brushed the outside wall as Chastain regained the top spot with a crossover move to the inside.
Keselowski’s bobble allowed Harvick to pass for second, but on Lap 111, Harvick and Chastain collided off Turn 2 and handed the top spot to Keselowski, who held it the rest of the way.
With his third victory in five starts this season and the 39th of his career, Keselowski knocked a significant item off his bucket list. Darlington and Sonoma had been the only two active NASCAR tracks where Keselowski had raced without a national touring series win.
“I really wanted to run this race for that reason,” said Keselowski, who beat runner-up Cole Custer to the finish line by .738 seconds. “I just haven’t been that great here at the (Monster Energy NASCAR) Cup level, and I’m trying to get better. This is such a huge confidence boost.”
Had Chastain and Harvick not wrecked together, the ending might have been quite different.
“I could keep up with Ross, but I couldn’t pass him — he was so fast,” Keselowski said. “Tried to make the move and brushed the wall, and he got back by me, and then they had the wreck off of (Turn) 2, and I was able to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The story for much of the race was Chastain, who started on the pole and led a race-high 90 laps behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Chastain led all 45 laps of Stage 1 and the final 20 laps of Stage 2 to score his first playoff points of the 2018 season as he looks to march into the 12-driver postseason field.
Up until Lap 111, Chastain had a dream race going. Harvick made a move to Chastain’s inside through Turns 1 and 2. Unwilling to give up the top spot, Chastain stayed in the gas within inches of the right side of Harvick’s No. 98 Ford. Harvick’s car drifted up into Chastain’s No. 42 Chevrolet, which bounced off the outside wall at the exit from Turn 2. Chastain then clipped the rear of Harvick’s Ford and sent it spinning. Harvick expressed his displeasure by parking in Chastain’s pit stall before exiting the race.
“I tried to stay as low as I could, and he just rode on my door,” Harvick explained later. “That’s just a really inexperienced racer and a really bad move there and got the air and got on beside me and just kept going up the race track. I couldn’t do anything with the wheel.”
Chastain hadn’t seen a replay of the incident when he gave his assessment after finishing the race in 25th, two laps down.
“I got to race with these guys, and I feel like I was holding my own with ‘em,” Chastain said. “I was really happy to be out there racing with ‘em. … I was just trying to race. I’ll have to see the film, and if I made a mistake, it’s on me. I was the leader there, and I was just trying to race.”
Chastain had earned the pole position earlier in the day — his first in the series coming in his first of three starts behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Prior to this start, Chastain had made all his starts in the No. 4 JD Motorsports Chevrolet.
Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler completed the top five. Justin Allgaier kept the points lead with a seventh-place finish in the race. He holds the lead over Elliott Sadler (-16), Custer (-17) and Christopher Bell (-36). Contact between championship contenders Daniel Hemric and Bell led to some left-front damage for Bell early in Stage 2. Hemric took on some right side damage from the contact as well. Bell would go down a lap that he would never get back and his day would only get worse as he blew a left-front tire on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that brought out a caution on Lap 65. Bell finished 34th, while Hemric finished 11th.
Brandon Jones was one of three drivers to lock into the playoff field; Matt Tifft and Ryan Truex were the other two. They join Allgaier, Sadler, Custer, Bell, Hemric and Reddick as drivers that have already clinched spots in the 12-driver playoff field.
The Xfinity Series will be back in action next Saturday, Sept. 8 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Lilly Diabetes 250 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the penultimate race of the regular season.