TALLADEGA, Ala. -- He watched it unfold live, having the advantage of running just behind the leaders on the final lap. He's watched it on replay several times since. And should he find himself in a similar situation Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Kasey Kahne will well remember how Brad Keselowski broke loose from both Kyle Busch and conventional wisdom to win five months ago at NASCAR's biggest race track.
"I know exactly what he did," Kahne said. "I've watched it a couple of times, and if I'm leading on the last lap, I'm going to try that same move. ... I would try to make the same move and see if it works."
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Why not? It certainly worked for Keselowski in May, when the Penske Racing driver appeared set up to get passed on the final lap -- and never gave anyone a chance to do it. The lead is generally believed to be the worst place to be at the white flag at Talladega, given how recent restrictor-plate races have typically come down to tandem pairings, and how the driver running in second is often able to slingshot around for the victory. That certainly was the case a day earlier in the Nationwide Series event, when Joey Logano pushed Busch until they were in sight of the checkered flag, and then slipped around at the last second to win.
So as the Sprint Cup cars began their final circuit around this 2.66-mile behemoth in the Aaron's 499 in May, a slingshot move for the victory seemed as much a sure thing as the Big One or the smell of campfire smoke permeating the infield. Roaring off the backstretch, though, Keselowski tried something a little unorthodox -- he rolled higher into Turn 3, forcing some separation between him and Busch, which didn't give his pursuer the ability to whip around him for the win. Since the lead pair had built up such a margin over the rest of the field, no one else was in position to challenge Keselowski, who rapidly built a 10-car advantage and pulled away to what by Talladega standards seemed a landslide victory (watch).
Other competitors took notice. Keselowski may not have changed the way drivers race the final lap at Talladega, but he did unearth another potential way to win. He showed that if the conditions are right, the leader at the white flag doesn't have to be content to get pushed around -- and then passed for the victory.
"You look at how Brad approached Turn 3, and how it made them separate in a natural way instead of seeing these big slingshot moves and cars wiggling around and about to wreck," said six-time Talladega winner Jeff Gordon. "Whether it was planned full-out or it just worked out that way, either way it makes you think about it if you are in that position at the end."
It was a stark difference from the way Keselowski claimed his first victory at Talladega, in the spring of 2009, when he glued his car to the bottom of the race track and challenger Carl Edwards went flying into the catchfence (watch). But rules, body styles and racing surfaces have changed in the interim, creating a hybrid of pack racing that broke down into dueling tandems at the end. Keselowski might never have had a chance to make his move had the Roush Fenway pair of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle -- which steamed into the lead off the final restart -- been able to stay hooked. But they couldn't, opening the door for the Penske racer to try something different.
What made him think it would work? "Common sense. How do you say it? Common sense is a set of prejudice acquired from birth," Keselowski said, paraphrasing Albert Einstein. "For me, looking backward at that move since it's already happened, it's obvious to say now that it worked. Trying to look at it from when I was in that position, I just had this intuition of how Kyle would react, just from experience around him, and how the actual air would work just in theory. Obviously, the two came together and it happened. I don't know. Maybe I could make that same move five times in a row, and that's the only time that it would work. It's hard to say. I'd feel fortunate if I had the opportunity to make that move five times, because there is no guarantee that it will work the next time."
Indeed, circumstances played a part. Kenseth and Biffle broke apart and fell back. And Keselowski and Busch had built such a lead over the rest of the field, no one else was in position to track down the No. 2 car after he shook the No. 18 loose. Had that gap been closer, perhaps things would have been different. "Usually being disconnected that early is going to cost you the win," Gordon said. "Those [other] guys were two-by-two, and quite a ways back. In any other scenario, I think that you lose the race being disconnected in the middle of [Turns] 3 and 4."
"You would think somebody would get there and run him back down, but it just didn't happen," added five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Nothing behind Brad materialized, and he was smart to get away and not allow anybody to be there to make a move in the tri-oval at the finish. Brad is a great race car driver, and I would say it was instincts and intuition that helped him make those decisions, and he often makes the right call when it comes down to that."
Talladega being what it is, though, with that almost liquid flow of cars rippling of its own volition, the idea that any kind of plan can be enacted with exactitude seems about as farfetched as the Crimson Tide losing to Vanderbilt. The scenario had to be perfect for Keselowski to pull of what he did, and it was, but only after a big crash had set up a green-white-checkered finish and the lead cars had become unexpectedly strung out. For Keselowski or any other driver to attempt a similar tactic on Sunday would require almost identical conditions, and there's no guarantee of that at a venue where aerodynamic forces seem capable of producing a completely different event each time out.
"The hard thing is, I don't know that there are ever two scenarios that are exactly the same," reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "I'm not sure that what works for one guy is exactly going to work for another guy. That whole last lap, you have to analyze every hundred feet what you are doing and what your plan is. I don't think anybody sits there and starts that last lap saying, 'This is what I'm going to do, and this is what I'm going to have to do.' At the end of it, you are pretty much calling an audible the whole way around trying to figure out and assess what they are doing as a part of what you are going to have to do."
"It all worked out perfectly for Brad, for him to be able to do that," Kahne added. "Usually, there's another car behind and then you couldn't do that, because then you'd run third. The year before I think they finished eight or 10 across the line, so there was no way you could have pulled that move there or you would have finished 11th. So it just all worked out -- and then the way he broke 'em apart was just magic."
And that magic is hard to resist. Which is why, should the whims of Talladega Superspeedway produce final-lap conditions that in any way resemble what unfolded here five months ago, Keselowski's race-winning move will be lodged firmly in the back of many drivers' minds.
"I've got a couple of different scenarios," Gordon admitted. "I'd like to be in that position. I'd like to try to win it. Who doesn't want to be leading on the last lap?"
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.