Brad Keselowski's engine was getting hotter with every single lap. If he didn't try to get the debris that was clogging his grille off the front of his car, he didn't think his engine wasn't going to make it to the end of the race.
But he was leading late in Sunday's race at Pocono. He had no one in front of him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind him. There weren't going to be many, if any, opportunites to get behind another car to get the airflow off the front of his car and the piece of trash to fall off.
Danica Patrick's lapped car was his only hope. With five laps to go, Keselowski caught Patrick off turn one. He tried to get the nose of his car up near the back of Patrick's slower car, which was wounded by a flat tire incident earlier in the day. But as he tried to get behind Patrick, he lost too much speed off the corner – and didn't even get the debris off. Junior capitalized and passed Keselowski to lead the last four laps for his second win of the season.
It's Earnhardt Jr.'s first multiple-win season since 2004, when he was with his father's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and won six races. That season, Junior was in the hunt for the championship until a 25-point penalty for a swear word and a crash at Atlanta derailed his season. This year, you're a fool for thinking Junior's not a legitimate threat for the title.
"The car was real hot, we had a real fast Red's Apple Ford and just got a big piece of debris on the grille and had to do something," Keselowski said. "It was blowing up. Tried to make a move to get in behind (Patrick) and use the air to pull the debris off and when she went into the corner she got loose and I just chased her up there and lost too much momentum."
"I should have just passed her but I had to do some kind of move. The car wasn't going to make it. It was already starting to blow up and it was all I could do."
Earnhardt Jr. knew that was his only opportunity to get past Keselowski. After Keselowski outraced Junior to the lead on the race's final restart, Junior hung with him, but never got close enough to make a pass. And heck, he had trash on his grille too. But it wasn't as large as the piece on the front of Keselowski's car.
"He didn't want to let me by but I didn't know if his motor was going to make it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's unfortunate for him. He had me beat, I couldn't get to him – just real hard to pass here. But I've lost some in some strange ways so it feels good to win one like that."
Earlier in the season, Junior and Keselowski were battling for the win at Las Vegas. Junior and team were trying to stretch the fuel as much as possible and wound up just a bit short, allowing Keselowski to drive past in the final corner for the win.
And because of Keselowski's Vegas win (and Junior's win in the Daytona 500), both drivers were able to play the race smartly. If Keselowski was winless, the race may have played out differently, but in this case, the win and assurance that he'll be in the Chase with the new win-and-in format favored the pragmatic route. Yes, his car ultimately made it to the finish line, but with his water temps skyrocketing as the race ticked down, it was a true risk/reward scenario.
Heck, Keselowski still had a chance for the win after he was passed by Junior. But because the clean air provided to the leader of the race throughout Sunday made such a difference, Keselowski wasn't able to catch up to the back bumper of Junior or even get the trash off his grille.
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