KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The race-winning car had its back bumper covered with tape, its right side scratched up and numerous other dings and dents obscured by confetti from Victory Lane. The vehicle of the five-time series champion had a rear end reconstructed out of molding putty, and a deck lid that crewmen had used mallets to hammer back into some semblance of shape. The automobile of the points leader had a dirtied-up nose, but beyond that not a scratch on it.
And that explains why Brad Keselowski remained the points leader following a rough-and-tumble Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
"Let's just keep not trying to wreck here. It's working real well," Keselowski said over the radio in the middle of a event on a resurfaced 1.5-mile oval, where the new pavement and a narrow racing groove produced a track record 14 cautions that spared no one. Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion who is Keselowski's closest pursuer for the championship, spun on his own. So did reigning Sprint Cup titlist Tony Stewart. Race winner Matt Kenseth banged off the outside wall in an incident that sent teammate Greg Biffle spinning through the grass. From Kyle Busch to Danica Patrick, no driver seemed immune at a facility that saw speeds and mayhem increase at an equal measure.
And yet there was the No. 2 Dodge, rolling through post-race teardown after an eighth-place finish, without a visible mark on it. Make no mistake, Johnson is clearly coming, as evidenced by an amazing reclamation effort after his accident that somehow kept the No. 48 car on the lead lap and able to finish one spot behind Keselowski. The points difference between the top two drivers proved a wash -- seven coming in, seven going out. That's something few save Chad Knaus probably thought possible after Johnson spun and backed into the wall. Should the Hendrick Motorsports driver go on to win a sixth championship, there will be plenty of reasons to point to Sunday at Kansas as the save that earned him a title.
But should Keselowski hold on to an advantage that's looked decidedly shakier the past two weeks, he'll have plenty of reason to remember his effort on this track at the edge of the prairie. The 14 cautions Sunday weren't just a track record, but a high for the Cup season. The 400-miler was at times a cavalcade of mechanical misery, the yellow flags flying one after another, with hardly a break in between. In NASCAR's official box score, 15 different cars were listed as being involved in accidents. "It's a damn minefield," spotter Joey Meier told Keselowski at one point, and the No. 2 car was somehow able to traipse its way through it.
Not, though, without close calls. Keselowski was making his way up through traffic on Lap 182 after a pit stop had cost the Penske driver some track position when Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman tangled directly in front of him. Newman turned Busch traversing Turn 4, the latter sliding low and the former heading up into the wall. Charging right behind them, Keselowski split the combatants, narrowly avoiding contact with Newman's fishtailing rear end. He also rolled high up the track in the aftermath to avoid residual contact between Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. that send the No. 39 car into the grass.
Over the radio, Keselowski could not contain his glee. "I can't believe I saved it! I can't believe I saved it!" he shouted. "Man, if we win the championship, go ahead and save that video clip. I hope there's an in-car camera."
Indeed, in retrospect that narrow escape might well prove a defining moment, even if afterward Keselowski wasn't quite sure of how he had pulled it off. "Somehow we made it through. I don't know how to describe that," he said. "I guess 25 percent talent and 75 percent luck? I don't know. You say it. That's my guess."
No question, it could have been a whole lot worse -- particularly had Keselowski been a hair closer to Newman or Kyle Busch at the time of their incident. But it also could have been better, too. A stunning repair job by Johnson and Knaus completely negated whatever gains Keselowski might have been in position to make. The ordeal involved Johnson stopping on pit road again and again and again, and the crew chief barking detailed instructions -- "Get your hammer, Johnny, and work on that dent. Right between the O and the W," he ordered at one point over the radio. And the No. 2 team was bitten again by what's becoming a regular nuisance -- qualifying position. His 25th spot on the starting grid made it tough to gain track position in a racing narrow groove.
"Got to work on that qualifying," crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the race over the radio. Indeed, Keselowski's 25th-place starting spot Sunday marked the No. 2 team's third straight of 20th or lower. Keselowski hasn't started better than 10th since Bristol in August.
"It's just an OK day for us," Wolfe said after the race. "It was hard to overcome 25th at a repaved track where it's one lane. That's that biggest thing that we fought today, where we started. We're going to have to figure that out to win this championship."
With so many accidents and so many caution periods, drivers Sunday at Kansas were largely in survival mode, trying to give themselves a chance to get to the finish. Even so, a No. 2 team that looked ready to stretch its championship lead as recently as two weeks ago continues to show signs of vulnerability, with Sunday's effort following a race at Charlotte where Keselowski ran dry trying to stretch a fuel run. Now it's on to tiny Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson has won six times, third-place driver Denny Hamlin has visited Victory Lane four times and Keselowski hasn't finished better than ninth in five career starts. Two of the final three weeks of the season bring those big 1.5-milers where Keselowski often flourishes, and if he reaches Texas with the points lead he may well be positioned to close the deal.
But he has to get there first.
For Keselowski, survival mode may extend beyond Kansas -- it may represent the remainder of this championship run, particularly with Johnson continuing to lurk. A telling sign: after their impressive repair job, after rallying from being the last car on the lead lap, after finishing ninth to effectively cancel out Keselowski's effort, Johnson and Knaus weren't trading high-fives, but fuming over what they thought was a race that got away.
One minefield at a time, though. If Keselowski is to win this championship, he'll have to tiptoe through a few more. Appropriate, then, that Sunday he slid out of his race car, pulled off his helmet, sat on the ledge of the driver's side window opening, and breathed a sizable sigh of relief.
"I feel like surviving Talladega right here," he said. "I said when we finished Talladega that somebody should make 'I Survived Talladega' T-shirts. Well, I didn't know coming to Kansas it was going to be the same. Just wrecks and accidents and blown tires, everything you can imagine happened today. Just an action-jammed race, and I felt really lucky to survive it."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Brad Keselowski
- Kyle Busch