For a track already infamous for concrete-thick gridlock outside the grandstands, Kentucky gave us a race on Saturday night as wide open as rush hour on a holiday.
Brad Keselowski proved he's not just a legit Chase contender but a potential championship one, winning his third race of the year while driving a backup car and manipulating his fuel situation. With big guns like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin suffering setbacks that kept them out of the lead, and with Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. unable to close the gap, Keselowski thoroughly dominated the final third of the race.
Hamlin wasn't able to build on what he'd hoped would be a marquee day, the announcement of the extension of his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing. "When you know you're locked in and know you're going to race where you're going to race for a really long time, and honest people at Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx have your back a long time, it's a good feeling," he said. "We're really blessed to have the partnership that we have ... and a team that's capable of winning a championship. That's all I can ask for. So it's up to us to get that done from here on out." Hamlin now sits 5th in points, and appears a lock to make the Chase.
Kentucky spent untold amounts both in trying to rectify last year's disastrous parking nightmare and in trying to get out the word about all the changes. And indeed, there were no reports of problems getting into the track ... in part, at least, because attendance appeared to be far short of last year's total. Some of that dropoff is to be expected when you go from an inaugural race to a second one, some is attributable to the triple-degree heat, but some is certainly because of the problems from last year. Post-race, Twitter had no reports of drivers trapped in their vehicles or unable to leave the track.
The drivers didn't have a whole lot of trouble getting around Kentucky for the most part, either. Wide-open racing at the 1.5-mile track didn't produce a whole lot of drama; indeed, for much of the race it felt like a Formula 1-style "who makes the errors in the pits?" kind of race. Any driver able to find clean air could get distance on the field, and the drivers, like Busch and Keselowski, who could restart strong after one of the few cautions were able to grab and hold the lead ... and he did so in a backup car courtesy of the, in his words, "badasses" of his team.
"They put together a back‑up car from last year in 100° heat in an hour's time ‑‑ not even an hour," Keselowski said. "It was like 40 minutes. I wish I had a stopwatch for that. Got it on the racetrack and got to run our laps for practice to make the adjustments we needed to be fast today. And that's what badasses do, and that's what got us to victory lane today, and I'm proud of these guys for it. I'm proud of them. Damn proud of them. I think that sums it up."
This sets up an interesting final nine races of the regular season for Keselowski. If he's able to stay in the top 10, and he's 34 points ahead of 11th right now, he'd get bonus points for the three wins. That at the moment would put him in the series lead. Fall out of the top 10, and he'll still surely make the Chase, but without the bonus points.
Either way, Keselowski showed he's now legitimate championship material. As Tony Stewart proved last year, a driver that can win at any time is more valuable than a consistent finisher, if only barely. And Keselowski now adds a 1.5-miler to his short track and his superspeedway victories this year. That's not a bad year's work, and we're not even halfway.
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