Keselowski Steals the Show at Atlanta Despite Illness
Two races, two storybook endings. The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has gotten off to an incredible start and we're only two weekends in. By now, everyone has heard the story of Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500 in honor of his late boss and friend J.D. Gibbs. If not, you can read the story here. This past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR fans were treated to another great story at the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
Heading into the weekend, the focus was solely on the partial debut of the new aerodynamic package that is designed to create closer racing at the expense of horsepower and overall speed. However, it was one man's resilience and perseverance that everyone was talking about after the checkered flag flew.
On Friday Brad Keselowski and his wife, Paige both fell ill with flu-like symptoms. The next day, Keselowski noted that he had lost roughly six pounds over the course of ten hours on Saturday and was in such a grave state that he would not have been able to have to compete in the race if it had been run that day. In fact, Team Penske had their Xfinity driver, Austin Cindric shakedown Keselowski's #2 AutoTrader Ford Mustang in final practice and was on standby for Sunday's race in case Keselowski was unable to compete.
Fortunately, by Sunday afternoon, Keselowski was able to regain enough strength to compete and was cleared by NASCAR officials to start the race. The #2 Mustang took the green flag from the 19th starting position.
As for the race itself, Atlanta delivered once again. It's tough to place value on how much the aero package had an impact on the race because Atlanta has always been known for great races with tight finishes, but the quality of racing all around the track was fantastic. There were great battles all day long. Even when it seemed Kyle Larson was dominating the early portion of the race, he wasn't. Kevin Harvick was always right there in tow, lurking.
Larson and Harvick put on a show for the first two stages, but both ran into issues. Larson was caught speeding on pit road with roughly 100 laps to go and was stuck in traffic the rest of the race and never able to recover. The #42 McDonald's Chevrolet Camero finished 12th after leading a race-high 142 laps. As for Harvick, the #4 Busch Beer Ford Mustang faded after winning Stage 2. Radio communications between Harvick and crew indicated that Harvick felt he had used the splitter up and that handling had gone away as a result. Harvick finished fourth but wasn't a factor at the end.
With the two cars that had dominated the first half of the race now facing trouble, Team Penske as a whole pounced on the opportunity. Ryan Blaney wrestled the lead away from Harvick on the same restart after the Larson speeding penalty. Blaney took the point for 41 laps and looked to be the new favorite for victory lane heading into green-flag pitstops.
During that sequence of green-flag stops with a little over 50 laps to go, most of the leaders, including Blaney, had already stop or on pit road when Ryan Preece and B.J. McLeod collided on pit road. Preece's car was destroyed and began leaking fluid to which NASCAR threw the caution flag. Tough break for Preece and the #47 JTG-Daughtery Racing Team who was putting together another solid top 10 finish.
With the caution falling during green-flag pitstops, all but three cars were trapped a lap down including Blaney; however, all got their lap back as the result of the wave around when the other three pitted during the caution. Joey Logano had assumed the lead after Blaney went into the pits. Logano and Kurt Busch led the field to the green flag one final time with 43 laps to go. Logano paced the field for the next ten laps but was eventually tracked down by teammate Keselowski and shortly after reported and had to stop for a loose wheel. The defending Cup Champion finished 23rd.
As the final run of the day ticked away with Keselowski at the helm, tire wear became a concern. After Logano's issue with the loose wheel, teammate Blaney had a frayed tire and finished 22nd. Daniel Hemric, who was running in fourth at the time also had a tire eat up and wound up 20th, ruining their great effort.
With both teammates having tire issues, Keselowski went into conservation mode over the final 10 laps of the race. This allowed Martin Truex Jr. to run the #2 down and with two laps to go was at the back bumper of Keselowski. However, Keselowski was able to hold off the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota for the victory.
The win brings a couple milestones and merits of honor to Brad Keselowski's already well-decorated NASCAR career. It's his 28th career Cup series victory tying him with former rival Carl Edwards for 27th all-time. Across all three of NASCAR's top touring series, it's Keselowski's 68th career victory tying the great Matt Kenseth for thirteenth all-time. It's also Keselowski's 60th career win with Team Penske passing the legendary Mark Donohue for most in that storied organization's history.
All three of NASCAR's top three national series will be back in action this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.