How Brad Keselowski avoided a ‘death sentence’ to win his first Cup race this season

Banana peels, plastic baggies of grapes, bundles of tape and twisted metal — and bottles, dozens of empty water bottles, 5-hour Energy shots, and plastic Coca-Colas.

Or, less eloquently, trash.

Minutes after Brad Keselowski won the 69th Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, stealing the victory from Kyle Larson in dramatic fashion, that garbage was everywhere at Keselowski’s pit box. And for good reason — with the way the No. 2 team won Sunday night, and the fact that it was Keselowski’s first victory this year, there was no time to clean up anything. Especially not garbage.

The simple fact is, Kyle Larson probably should have won on Sunday. He had finished second four times already this season, and in addition to leading 284 of 367 laps, he was building up huge leads on those long runs.

Not a second or two. We’re talking 15, 16, 17 seconds. Half a lap is no exaggeration.

But there’s a reason you run the full race.

And on Sunday, that reason was one final, crucial, race-determining pit stop. With 19 laps to go, it was a three-way dash off pit road between Larson, Keselowski, and fellow Team Penske driver Joey Logano. For all the skill in those three collective men, there was little they could do in that moment to help themselves. It all came down to the pit crews.

Imagine being one of them.

“I was just hoping to at least maintain, and then the guys got us off pit road first, I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got a shot at this,’” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “If we had the clean air, then likely we would go on our way ... and that’s exactly what happened.”

The drivers knew so, too. Win that pit road race, and you win the entire race.

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“I think our pit stop, it couldn’t have been a hair faster. It was just enough,” Keselowski said. “I just hit the perfect launch, and I probably gained 4 or 5 feet just by executing the launch off the box.

“As soon as I got to the line, I was like, ‘I think I got him by like half a foot,’ and you’re just waiting like, ‘Oh here comes the speeding penalty, here it comes, here it comes,’ and the second the spotter keys the radio for the first time, you kind of cringe. And then he said, ‘OK, 19 to go.’ Man ... that’s like waiting for your death sentence.”

Only it never came.

Once Keselowski was in front, he slowly pulled away from Larson the same way Larson had from the field all night long. It was a quarter-second, then a half, but by the last three laps, nobody was catching the No. 2.

“I think if I could’ve been the control car for that restart, even if by just a nose off of pit road ... ” Larson said. “That kind of won him the race.”

When finally the race was over, when the entirely full grandstands rose and applauded Keselowski’s come-from-behind win — he hadn’t led all day before the final restart, after all — it was time for the rest of the teams to pack up their pit boxes.

Some had a head start, their drivers either long-eliminated or long-eliminated from genuine competition. In those squares, the roofs were coming undone and the tools were being re-packed almost as soon as the checkered flag flew.

But not at Keselowski’s box. The full ensemble was out in the open, trash and tires and blowtorches and ... well, everything. You understand, with the way things shook out.

And then to look down two boxes to the No. 42’s stall... Silence. Shock. A slow, slogging gait, as if the memory of another close finish literally weighing on the crew’s every step.

Eventually, after a couple of Miller Lites and interviews, Keselowski’s crew headed back to that box and straightened up — no more bottles, no more blowtorches. They were the last ones left cleaning up, deconstructing the roof and slowly closing up shop.

But unlike the somber scene two boxes down, there was no reason for sulking on the No. 2 crew.

Only a few extra beer cans to sweep up in the celebration.