With a car covered in black tape, Keselowski stays a contender
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As it rolled through the shed for post-race inspection, Brad Keselowski’s car looked like it had finished closer to the back of the field than the front. Each side of the hood was covered in crash-repair adhesive, as if black had been added as a part of the paint scheme. There was more on the left edge of the nose, and still more on the right edge of the splitter, all of it bordered by silver metallic tape.
It was a vehicle beat to heck, a car that had been involved in two accidents and looked like it. And still, somehow, it almost won the Daytona 500.
“We don’t always have the best car,” said Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s crew chief. “But somehow we find a way to get good finishes, and that’s part of what it takes to win championships.”
That was certainly the case Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, when the reigning Sprint Cup Series champions opened their title defense with a massive salvage job that nearly netted the sport’s biggest race. Keselowski’s patched-up Ford used a pit strategy to lead 13 laps toward the end of the event, withstood a smack on the nose by a piece of debris, and hung on to finish fourth after giving up the lead to eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson on the final restart.
“You drive it. You don’t ask, you just drive,” Keselowski said. “You want to make excuses for not being successful -- you could do that, or you can go out there and put it all on the line and try to win.”
Which he did, despite being involved in a pair of earlier scrapes that appeared to take him out of the running. Keselowski’s Ford was one of nine cars scattered when Kyle Busch tapped Kasey Kahne on lap 33, sparking an accident that knocked out top competitors Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. That crash banged up the vehicle’s nose and knocked in some fender braces, Wolfe said, but quick repair work by Keselowski’s Penske Racing crew kept him on the lead lap -- only to see him caught up in another incident on lap 138.
That time, Keselowski was sandwiched between David Reutimann and Trevor Bayne in a chain-reaction fender-bender that left the No. 2 car swerving to the apron, where it bottomed out hard. That incident knocked the back end of the vehicle out of shape, as Keselowski discovered when he reported he was holding the steering wheel straight, but the car wasn’t necessarily traveling in the same direction. More pit stops and speedy repair jobs ensued. Was the driver ever concerned?
“Hell yeah, I was concerned,” Keselowski said. “But once they drop the green, there is no room to be concerned.”
Keselowski eventually reported that the car was good enough, and even better when it was out front -- where the Penske driver found himself thanks to some pit strategy that involved him topping off on fuel, and assuming the lead with 26 laps remaining before a caution issued for Jeff Burton hitting the wall. Somehow, a vehicle that had its front end covered in Bare Bond was streaking along the high line in command. It even withstood a knock on the nose from a piece of debris, which Wolfe surmised was aluminum from another car’s crush panel.
For Keselowski, though, the debris wasn’t the problem -- it was the caution that followed, which would ultimately doom his bid to drive his bandaged car into Daytona’s Victory Lane. Johnson had nosed ahead before the yellow was issued, allowing the five-time champion to assume the high line for a restart with six laps remaining. The outside lane had been the preferred line all of Speedweeks, and Sunday was no different.
“I knew that the 2 had some damage and wasn’t going to be really fast. That’s the only thing I thought about,” Johnson said. “… The numbers are everything in the draft, and there were far more cars on the outside lane then the inside. It was just so hard to make time on the bottom, because there were fewer cars.”
Keselowski knew he was done. “The yellow came out exactly when we were an inch or two behind Jimmie. That set it up for him to have the high lane on the restart, and we weren’t strong enough with the damage to our car to do anything once that happened,” he said. “You saw all day that the high lane was drastically faster than the lower lanes, and that showed up there on the last restart and he was able to drive away.”
Keselowski was shuffled back in the final restart, but regrouped for a fourth-place finish that matched his best at Daytona.
“Just a great way to start the season for us with a top-five,” Wolfe said. “We haven’t had the greatest luck here at Daytona, and it’s going to be a learning curve here early in the season.”
That’s because Sprint Cup teams are breaking in new vehicles known as Generation-6 cars. Late Sunday afternoon, though, Keselowski’s vehicle looked more like something that had just rolled off a figure-eight track.
“Seeing it now, a lot of that Bare Bond was loose at the very end,” Wolfe said. “The front end, obviously, wasn’t very clean on it. But it just shows how important that high lane is. When you get everybody lined up, as strong as (Johnson) is, it’s just hard on the bottom. I wouldn’t say I’m totally shocked by it, but who knows what it would blow in the wind tunnel right now.”
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