Keselowski holds off Elliott for Martinsville victory

Image by Thacker/LAT

Keselowski holds off Elliott for Martinsville victory

NASCAR

Keselowski holds off Elliott for Martinsville victory

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Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in winning Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

An easy victory, right?

Well, not exactly. After Keselowski’s pit crew put him in the lead for a restart on Lap 380, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford spent the rest of the race fending off a determined charge from Chase Elliott.

Ultimately, Keselowski got to the finish line .594s ahead of Elliott and 1.335s in front of Kyle Busch, who was attempting to win his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in his 1,000th national series start. But it wasn’t easy, as both Elliott and Busch were close enough to capitalize on even the smallest potential mistake.

The victory was Keselowski’s second of the season, second at Martinsville and the 29th of his Cup. It was also Team Penske’s third triumph of the season in six races, equaling the total of Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as the third Cup win for the Ford Mustang, which debuted in the series this year.

“The [Mustang] was really good,” Keselowski said. “Ford worked really hard in the offseason to build these cars and make them real strong, and so far, so good. Just a great day for our team.

“Awesome execution on pit road, and big credit to [engine builder] Doug Yates for all the engine stuff. Those guys worked really hard. [It was] just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver where you’ve got a great car.”

Before Keselowski could claim the grandfather clock trophy that goes to the winner, he had to go to school. Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was a superior short-run car, enabling Elliott to pass Keselowski for the lead on Lap 325, five laps after a restart necessitated by a caution for William Byron’s spin in Turn 4.

Keselowski followed Elliott for 48 green-flag laps — until Matt Tifft spun in Turn 2 on Lap 372 — and learned a valuable lesson.

Elliott led several laps and hounded Keselowski to the finish. Image by Thacker/LAT

“I don’t know if we were as good as the 9 car, Chase Elliott,” Keselowski said. “He was really strong, but he passed me there with about 200 to go, and I watched him and studied him and kind of broke it down and knew what I had to do to hold him off with that fast of a car.

“And we were able to pull it off that last run.”

Busch was hounding Elliott as fiercely as Elliott was dogging Keselowski, but when Busch was held up in traffic in the late going, Elliott began experimenting with a higher line in the corners.

Fast work in the pits kept Kyle Busch in contention throughout, but he hit traffic in the closing laps. Image by Thacker/LAT

“I felt like we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “There was a little .. I felt like when he did get the lead, there was a little advantage to being out front, being able to work traffic your way and kind of play off it and whatnot.

“But, yeah, I tried to move up there at the end, and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner. But I tried to get to him there in [Turn] 3 [on the final lap]. I was pretty well content on moving him out of the way. But maybe next time.”

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin, who recovered from a penalty for an uncontrolled tire. Kevin Harvick was sixth, Clint Bowyer came home seventh, despite being sent to the rear twice for speeding on pit road. Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10.

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