It’s been a historic two weeks for Brad Keselowski. The No. 2 Ford driver executed a hard-nosed pass of Denny Hamlin with two laps remaining in Monday’s rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard to win his first race at prestigious Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one week after visiting Victory Lane in the crown-jewel Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Keselowski earned Team Penske its first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at the track to go with the storied organization’s 17 Indianapolis 500 trophies – including one this May.
The 34-year-old Michigan native finished runner-up in this race last year and positioned himself to one-up the effort thanks to a late-race pit strategy call by his crew chief Paul Wolfe. On a restart with three laps remaining, the 2012 Cup champion muscled by Hamlin on fresher tires. He beat runner-up Erik Jones – who later maneuvered around Hamlin – to the start-finish line by 0.904 seconds.
Hamlin finished third, while Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five. Hamlin and Bowyer – who raced for the lead much of the final stage – each led a race-high 37 laps.
The race marked the end of the regular season with points leader Kyle Busch – who finished eighth Monday – officially collecting the regular-season championship. He and seven-race winner Harvick top the points standings as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins its 10-week playoff run this Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
“We had a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs but fought our way back,’’ the six-race winner and two-time Indy winner Busch said just before receiving the regular-season trophy.
“In the grand scheme of things it was a pretty good day considering we get to go home with some hardware.”
The third member of the sport’s “Big 3” this season is four-race winner Martin Truex Jr. The reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion goes into the playoffs ranked third, although he only completed 41 laps at Indy, his No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota officially finishing last in the 40-car field having to retire early with a brake problem.
With the two wins, Keselowski jumps into fourth place in the Playoff standings just ahead of the season’s other two-time winner Bowyer.
Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman were the only two drivers that hadn’t secured a playoff berth before the drop of the Indy green flag, but both advanced to the 16-driver field with 16th- and 33rd-place efforts at Indy.
“We raced up into the top 10 a couple times, we just didn’t have the speed to run up front,’’ said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We’ll go home and work hard and be ready for Las Vegas. I’m just proud I’ve made every playoff since NASCAR started them. …we have a lot of experience and I think our experience in pressure-packed situations will help us.”
There were plenty of pressure-packed situations in Monday’s race, including two at the end of the day unraveling the chances of a couple of front-runners.
Ryan Blaney, who ran among the lead pack most of the day, missed his pit stall on the final stop and ended up 11th in his Team Penske Ford. And former series champion Matt Kenseth, who seemed to revitalize the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford operation this weekend, had pit problems as well on the final stop with the car falling off the jack.
Still it was a positive day for the team. Kenseth led five laps and scored the first stage win of the season for the No. 6 Ford, capturing the Stage 2 checkered flag just ahead of Chase Elliott and Jones. His 12th-place effort was a season best for him and a promising sign for Roush Fenway Racing.
Three former Brickyard winners – Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman – kept the closing laps suspenseful as well. Because they came into the race ranked outside the playoffs’ top 16, a win would’ve eliminated Bowman from the postseason. They finished seventh, ninth and 10th respectively.
Keselowski’s win was the first for Ford Motor Company at Indianapolis since 1999.
-Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service