A victory at Talladega Superspeedway launched Brad Keselowski’s Sprint Cup Series career.
A second one in Sunday’s GEICO 500 may help define it.
Even though he had five wins already this season, Keselowski entered Sunday’s race needing one more as the only way to avoid elimination and remain in contention for a second series championship.
He didn’t lead the most laps, but he led enough that mattered and held off Matt Kenseth after two two-lap overtime to advance to Round 3 of the Chase.
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“I can tell you the pressure it puts on us at the shop, after you had the number of wins that Brad had, not to make it, would have been devastating to us,” team owner Roger Penske said.
Instead, Keselowski joins teammate Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon in Round 3, with all drivers reset to 4,000 points.
“We knew we had to win obviously coming into this week, this day. When the weekend started, I thought we had the opportunity to do that,” said Keselowski, who now has 16 career wins.
“We had very, very fast cars at Daytona and Talladega here and the past three restrictor-plate races. We really didn’t get any of the results we thought we were capable of.
“In the back of my mind, those three races that we had so much speed at and no results to show for it made me feel like we were due.”
Much like the ramifications of his first Talladega win in 2009, Keselowski hopes to capitalize on the opportunity Sunday’s victory presents to him and his No. 2 team.
“I think probably one of the things I look to the most in life is kind of self-judgment in a way, making the most of opportunities,” he said. “My own expectations or goals are to make the most of that opportunity and win races, win championships. We’ve done that with race wins. We’ve done it with a championship (in 2012).
“But our opportunity and our capabilities as a group are so much higher than that, and I don’t want to miss out on it.”
In addition to preparing for an all-or-nothing race at Talladega, Keselowski dealt this week with the fallout from his post-race run-ins at Charlotte with Hamlin and Kenseth.
As it turned out, it was Kenseth who gave Keselowski a large push on the final restart on Lap 193 of 194 that helped him clear the pack and pick up the win.
At the same time, however, the move also helped Kenseth – one of the drivers in danger of being eliminated entering the race – finish second and advance.
“I mean, when it comes down to the end of the race at Talladega, it’s not like you can be, ‘All right, I’m going to do that, this.’ You have to do what’s best for your best finish,” said Kenseth, who remains without a victory this season.
“Not knowing the exact points, knowing we had to finish in front of (Kasey Kahne), especially if (Keselowski) won, I knew my path to the best finish was going to be at the bottom there with Brad.”
When the dust settled, Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch were the four Chase drivers who failed to advance.
Earnhardt and Busch were both involved in wrecks, and Kahne finished 12thbut had a large points deficit to overcome. Johnson led the most laps in the race (84) but got shuffled back on the next-to-last restart when no one elected to join him when he ran to the top line on the track.
“Today we went down swinging. We had a chance and came up short,” Johnson said.
Clint Bowyer finished third, Landon Cassill finished a career-best fourth and Ryan Newman was fifth.
Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection and his Chase standing might change if the team is penalized this week by NASCAR.