Win or go home. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not.
Less than a week after being fined $50,000 for a post-race battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car is back in Victory Lane.
With some wild moves to block his competitors, Brad Keselowski charged to the front in an intense battle during a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski won his sixth race of the year with the victory in the Geico 500 over a hard-charging Matt Kenseth in what was arguably the most intense race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
“Obviously this win is huge,” Keselowski said. “We feel like we have been one of the strongest teams all year here, especially the second half of the season. This team has worked hard and I feel like they deserve a shot at a championship. The issues we had at Kansas put us behind and having to fight all the way back, everyone executed and did their job today.”
After receiving damage to his right side door panel from a wreck with Michael McDowell on Lap 59, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion faced adversity throughout the day. However, without any major repairs needed, he worked his way through the field and led five different times throughout the race for a total of 12 laps.
With eliminations on the line, Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 84 laps on Sunday afternoon. For the No. 48 team, that was not enough to send him onto the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Johnson used the low line throughout the day, and threw countless blocks to maintain the lead. However, prior to the final round of green-flag pit stops, Danica Patrick swerved around the six-time champion to take the lead. Johnson dropped back a few spots in the midst of the first green-white-checkered stint and had to save gas during the caution period as well. But on the final restart of the day, the pre-season favorite slipped back to finish 24th at Talladega – eliminating him from championship contention.
Besides Johnson, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did not advance to the next round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran up front throughout the 500-mile event. Yet even with 31 laps led, the No. 88 Chevrolet could not survive the chaos at Talladega. On Lap 187, David Gilliland tapped Earnhardt on the backstretch; causing major damage to his vehicle. Entering Sunday, he had to win in order to advance to the next round of the title. After having his first multi-win year since 2004, he will not contend for the championship.
Kasey Kahne, who made the Chase with a win at Atlanta, was also eliminated from the Chase after Talladega. Although he was inside of the top-eight in points, with Keselowski’s win – he was sent back one position in the Chase Grid. Kahne finished 12th at Talladega, and was just three points behind teammate Jeff Gordon after the sixth race of the Chase.
Kyle Busch entered Talladega as the highest-ranked driver without a win in Round 2. For the majority of the day, he worked with Kenseth at the rear of the field – approximately four to five seconds behind the lead pack. The strategy was working, but then chaos erupted with “the big one.” On Lap 102, with cars wrecking in front of him, Busch checked up and was hit by rookie Austin Dillon. Busch’s car slammed into the wall and received major cosmetic damage and injured the toe of his race car. Although he was able to get back on track – 49 laps down – Busch was able to gain just three positions. He was four points behind Kahne and trailed Gordon by seven markers.
Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will advance to the next round of the Chase. Gordon will be the lone HMS driver in Round 3. Ryan Newman was just four points behind Logano after Talladega, and represents Richard Childress Racing as their only driver in the Chase. Kevin Harvick will advance to the next round along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards will also advance for Roush Fenway Racing.
Here are some notables from the Geico 500:
-Terry Labonte finished 33rd in his final Sprint Cup Series start (890th total) for Go FAS Racing.
-Landon Cassill finished fourth on Sunday for Hillman Racing. Prior to this race, his best career-finish was 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.
-Travis Kvapil ended the day in the sixth position for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33 car. The finish marks the first top-10 for Kvapil since an eighth-place finish at Talladega in 2012.
-Casey Mears earned his third top-10 of the year for Germain Racing with a 10th-place finish.
-Cole Whitt finished 15th for BK Racing. His previous best career-finish was 18th-place at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the year.
-Martin Truex, Jr. led his first lap of the year for Furniture Row Racing, but finished in 27th.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.