In his mind, Carl Edwards was already celebrating. As the rear of Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Lite Ford grew closer in the final stages of Saturday’s Quaker State 400, Edwards already began plotting what tracks he was going to blast on the jukebox that serves as the trophy for Kentucky Speedway’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test.
“Oh yeah, I had things bought, I knew what I was going to play. I had the whole thing figured out,” Edwards lamented. “We’d won that race. I was pretty sure we were going to win it.”
There is something about Kentucky Speedway, however, that consistently allows Keselowski to find a little something extra. With his gas tank on fumes in the final two laps, the former Cup Series champion found just enough to keep up a tremendous tradition for himself at the 1.5 mile tri-oval.
They can repave the surface. They can reconfigure the track. What can’t be altered when it comes to Kentucky Speedway is the fact that Keselowski acts like he owns the place. For the third time in the race’s history, it was Keselowski heading to victory lane, having milked his Ford and its empty gas tank across the finish line 0.175 seconds ahead of Edwards for his season-high fourth win of the 2016 season.
In addition to winning the Quaker State 400 in 2012 and 2014, Keselowski has now won a major race in Sparta for six straight years. On top of his three Sprint Cup wins, he’s been victorious three times (2011, ’13 and ’15) in the Xfinity Series race.
It took a monster gamble and some tremendous back class for Keselowski to prove his mastery over the newly repaved Kentucky track. When the field restarted with 67 laps to go after Landon Cassill brought out the record-tying 11th caution of the night, Keselowski worked the high side to pass Harvick — who led 128 laps on the evening — before using the clean air to open up more than a three-second advantage.
He would need every inch of that lead as his tank dried up late. With several drivers running short on fuel, including Matt Kenseth who pitted with just five laps to go, Keselowski held a nine second advantage in the final stages but had his team begging over the radio to save whatever gas he could.
He radioed that he was on fumes with two laps to go and, at that point, a lurking Edwards would have bet anyone in the facility that he was primed to earn his first win at Kentucky since taking the 2005 Xfinity race. When he tried to run his No. 19 Toyota up to Keselowski into Turn 4, the former spurted away just enough to carry him across the line for what only seconds earlier seemed like an inconceivable victory.
“That was something. We weren’t the best car tonight that’s for sure,” said Keselowski, who also won at Daytona last weekend and officially clinched a spot in the season-ending Chase for the Championship. “Once we got to the lead there, I was like, ‘We’ll see how this all plays out.’ Our car was really fading on long runs and with 20-30 to go, I thought we’re probably not going to be able to hold off (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Kenseth). That’s when (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) made the call to go fuel mileage.
“I knew we were way short of being able to make (it). We were out with about two to go, by running out I mean stumbling really bad. I somehow limped it around and … this is a night I’m not going to forget.”
Edwards held for second with Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart rounding out the top 5.
The fresh Kentucky surface and reconfigured banking was a key topic of conversation in the run up to Saturday’s race, with many drivers saying they could shred whatever prior notes they had on the 267-lap race.
The track certainly took its toll, claiming six-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson early on when he got loose coming out of Turn 4 and wrecked on Lap 33, and sending Joey Logano to the garage when he smacked the wall on Lap 54. Keselowski — as has been his hallmark in Kentucky, however — was able to stay in the front half of the field for much of the night as his crew kept dialing in an already fast car.
With ten laps to go and the likes of Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. — who had worked up to third after having to restart 22nd with 68 laps to go after a penalty for passing on the entry to pit road — succumbing to the fuel mileage battle, Keselowski asked crew chief Paul Wolfe what he wanted to do. Wolfe decided to trust that one of the best at saving fuel would do just that.
“Definitely an emotional roller coaster for sure the last few laps of that race,” Wolfe said. “We pitted with about 70 to go and we knew everyone was a little short. I feel like we’ve been on the good side of fuel mileage this year and that showed up again tonight. (Brad) was able to shut off a little bit down the back as he got into the corner and it picked up again. Once we were coming off of four and I saw he was still under power, I felt like we had it at that point.”
Truex, who had arguably the fastest car late before having to pit with 10 laps to go, ended up tenth just behind Harvick.
When Keselowski triumphed at Kentucky in 2012, it ended up being a catalyst for what would be a championship march for his team. The way he willed his way to victory lane Saturday could be a shot across the bow in this second half of the season.
“I think that’s key in situations like that, is being able to stay calm and stay focused, and that’s definitely one of Brad’s strengths,” Wolfe said. “When it comes to thinking in the car, Brad is really good.”