Too sick to start practice on Saturday, Brad Keselowski found the cure for what ailed him in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Still suffering from the effects of stomach flu, Keselowski held off a charging — and frustrated — Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps of the 325-lap Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, and powered his No. 2 Team Penske Ford across the finish line .218 seconds ahead of Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
The victory was Keselowski’s first of the season and the first for the new Ford Mustang in the Cup series. The 2012 champion won for the second time at Atlanta and for the 60th in Penske Racing equipment (all series combined), breaking a tie with the late Mark Donohue.
Despite his illness, Keselowski reveled in the accomplishment.
“I think any win means a lot, but that’s a big number,” Keselowski said. “Now I get to wear that yellow Mark Donohue helmet, so here we go — we’re going to wear it next week.
“But what a tremendous honor. This day is … Wow, I don’t even know how to put it in words. I’m just excited for this team — first race with the new rules or whatever they’re called now, and to be able to win it, that’s really special.”
Pulling out to a substantial lead after the final restart on Lap 283 (following a caution for a pit road accident involving Ryan Preece and B.J. McLeod), Keselowski had two concerns: an overheating engine and tire issues that had forced teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney to pit road for unscheduled stops late in the race.
As Keselowski was nursing his car toward the finish in the final 10 laps, Truex closed dramatically, cutting Keselowski’s advantage to .181 seconds with two circuits left.
On Lap 324, Keselowski blocked Truex’s line off Turn 4 and hammered it to the finish line a lap later.
“We ran over a piece of debris with, I don’t know, probably 50 laps to go and overheated really bad, and I thought there was no way this engine would make it to the end,” Keselowski said. “But [engine builder] Doug Yates and his team — they do a great job.
“I’m pretty sure it’s all used up, Doug, but it’s in Victory Lane, so that’s okay, right?”
As he chased Keselowski, Truex grew frustrated with lapped traffic, particularly with outside front-row starter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who was running in the “lucky dog” position, hugging the bottom lane of the race track.
Because the fifth and final caution had interrupted a cycle of pit stops after all the lead-lap drivers save Logano and eventual third-place finisher Kurt Busch had come to pit road, Truex restarted behind lapped cars on Lap 283 after he and the majority of the field took wave-arounds.
“It was a shame we got put in that position on that last restart, but that’s the way the caution fell,” Truex said. “Man, I could taste that one. I really wanted that first Atlanta win. Just the 17 (Stenhouse) rode there in front of us forever and ever, running the bottom, and I kept telling him [through spotters] I needed the bottom … These cars are just so bad in dirty air that he was holding me up really bad.
“Once I got around him, I got to the 2 car (Keselowski) in two laps. I just needed one more. Unfortunate. We had a great car, and, like I said, the guys did a great job. Just a little upset. We had the best car. We probably should have won that one.”
Stenhouse Jr. got a strong start from the top lane at the initial green flag and charged past pole winner Aric Almirola off Turn 4 to lead the first lap. Almirola got the spot back on Lap 2, but two lead changes in the first two laps was nevertheless a promising omen for the new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package NASCAR introduced this year.
The second stage of the race produced a compelling battle for the lead between defending race winner Kevin Harvick and first stage winner Kyle Larson. Those two drivers swapped the top spot nine times between Laps 88 and 162, with Harvick prevailing in the second stage.
But the handling of Harvick’s Ford tightened up in the late going as shadows shrouded Turns 1 and 2, and the 2014 series champion rolled home in fourth place.
Zapped with a pit road speeding penalty and sent to the back of the field for a restart on Lap 228 — after Kyle Busch cut a right rear tire to cause the fourth caution — Larson struggled in traffic and finished 12th.
Clint Bowyer ran fifth, with Kyle Busch recovering to finish sixth. Erik Jones, Almirola, Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10.