By a matter of inches, Brad Keselowski won the race off pit road under the final caution in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
That narrow margin was all the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford needed to secure a stunning victory in one of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ marquee races.
On the flip side, Keselowski’s first victory of the season left Kyle Larson bitterly disappointed. Larson led 284 of the 367 laps in addition to winning the first and second stages of the race. But the work of Keselowski’s pit crew proved decisive.
Keselowski controlled the final restart on Lap 348 and pulled away, as Larson faded to third and had to fend off a determined charge by Kevin Harvick to hold that position. It was Joey Logano who passed Larson for second on Lap 352, giving team Team Penske a 1-2 finish and the organization its first win at Darlington since 1975.
“The 42 (Larson) was really strong,” said Keselowski, who picked up his first victory at the 1.366-mile track and the 25th of his career in a No. 2 Ford sporting a throwback paint scheme reminiscent of the Miller Genuine Draft machine Rusty Wallace drove during his tenure at Team Penske. “I felt like whoever came off pit road first at the end was going to win the race.
“My team nailed the last pit stop. … We stayed in position the whole race with great strategy to keep us from falling back. We didn’t have the long-run speed we wanted, but the short runs were great, and we were there when it counted.”
Keselowski, who also won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series event, came off pit road on Lap 345 three-wide with Larson and Logano, less than a foot ahead of Larson.
“It’s always important to come out the leader off pit road to be the control car on the restart,” Larson said. “I felt like, if I had been in clean air, I would have been all right. I was just loose that last run and allowed Joey to get by.
“I knew the only weakness we would have throughout the race was a short run, and that’s what it kind of came down to. … It stings, for sure. I want to win every race, but I want to win the Southern 500 really bad. It would have been cool to do that, but at the same time, to bring a (dominant) car to the race track like we did this weekend is something to be proud of and a big confidence booster.”
Erik Jones ran fifth behind Harvick. Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, pole winner Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch completed the top 10. Kyle Busch retained the series lead by 39 points over Harvick.
Jeffrey Earnhardt spun in Turns 1 and 2 to cause the sixth caution on Lap 344, and that was the yellow that gave Keselowski the opportunity to grab the victory. The only serious incident of the race occurred on Lap 312 when Clint Bowyer plowed into Ryan Newman near the apex of Turns 3 and 4.
Newman was trying to get to pit road, and neither Bowyer nor his spotter saw a signal to that effect.
“I hit the 31 (Newman) really hard,” Bowyer said. “I guess he was pitting or something, and it’s a product of this place. … I didn’t see him wave, but like I said, when you come off (Turn) 2 and you pass 37 lapped cars and you get your bearings and everything else — maybe he waved, maybe he didn’t — I didn’t see it.”
The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron retired from the race with engine issues. Johnson finished 39th with what he believed was an oil pump problem, but that came after the No. 48 Chevrolet suffered a loose wheel, and after Johnson was penalized for a subsequent commitment line violation.
Accordingly, there’s a mathematical possibility the seven-time champion could miss the playoffs when the field is set next Sunday at Indianapolis.
“I don’t want to be in this position,” Johnson said. “We have been around this spot (14th in the standings) for a while. We’ve seen it coming. We just need to transfer, and, honestly, I think our cars are capable of running in the top five.
“If we can just start minimizing mistakes, my own included, we’ll be much better off and have a shot.”