NASCAR: Brad Keselowski steals a wild Bristol race

For the second straight Sunday, Brad Keselowski stole a NASCAR Cup Series race in its final stanzas, benefitting from chaos upfront.

It was deja vu all over again for the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday. Whereas Brad Keselowski welcomed it with open arms, Chase Elliott probably could’ve done without it.

Keselowski once again benefitted from Elliott’s misfortune at Bristol Motor Speedway. When Elliott’s battle for the lead with Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano ended in contact, Keselowski took advantage, passing them both to win the Supermarket Heroes 500 presented by Food City.

Just a wild, wild day,” Keselowski said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom. “One of those days that you look at and you think of going back, being a part of Bristol lore for a long time to come.  Glad we were able to win it.”

“So much beating and banging, oh my goodness. We’ve all been cooped up in our houses too long, came to Bristol and took out some aggression I guess.”

Last Sunday, Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend after Elliott’s puzzling decision to pit prior to a two-lap overtime shootout. This time, it was a pit decision from Keselowski’s crew that put him in position to win a wild showdown in Tennessee.

Awarded the pole position from a random draw, Keselowski led 117 of the first 203 laps before getting caught in the middle of the pack while Elliott took home playoff points by winning the first two stages of the 500-circuit event. Keselowski was able to keep his car relatively clean in a race that featured 17 caution flag incidents. When Gray Gaulding hit the wall with 41 laps to go, Keselowski was one of a select few to visit pit row for fresh tires. He made the fateful stop at the advice of crew chief Jeremy Bullins and hoped to salvage a top ten finish with the adjustments.

Jeremy called a really good race,” Keselowski said. “I’m super proud of him and this team, the way they’ve come together, and keep coming together.  It’s a special group.  I feel like we’re all trying to find each other’s full potential.  We’re just starting to do that. We were getting real close to that before the pandemic happened.  Kind of slowed us down.  Now we’re really pushing each other hard and that’s a very good thing.”

Further incidents allowed Keselowski to think bigger. A multi-car incident that took out several contenders (including Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola) moved the No. 2 into the top ten. When leader Denny Hamlin got bumped but Logano with ten laps to go, Keselowski had moved into fifth and was in prime position to take the victory.

Antics between Elliott and Logano allowed him to do so.

Elliott and Logano broke away from the pack when the race got back underway with six laps to go. The two pounded away at each other until a little too much tension had them both rubbing against the wall. Keselowski scooted past the chaos to take home his second win of the season and the 32nd of his Cup Series career.

I think with 41 to go, I was quite honestly just hoping to get a top ten,” Keselowski recalled. “Once we broke in the top 10 I thought, I have a real shot at the top five. Next thing I know we’re running fifth.  I think the 11 car got turned around, something happened there. Now we’re running fourth. Now we have the preferred lane on the restart.”

“Then the restart we clear and get third.  I’m watching Chase and Joey (thinking) this is not going to be good. It was just such a turn of events.  I felt like I was sitting in Vegas, playing poker, and I got all the turns. They call it the river. All the turns went my way. I went from having a bad hand to having a full house real quick.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The tension between Elliott and Logano capped off an eventful day at Bristol, the 0.533-mile short track known for close racing, big wrecks, and flared tempers. Several big wrecks removed several big names from the proceedings. Another Keselowski teammate, Ryan Blaney, saw his day end on a disastrous spin during the second stage, putting his No. 12 Ford on a collision course with Ty Dillon. Blaney had been running second and chasing down Keselowski for the lead at the time. The race was also briefly paused at lap 231 to clean up a big wreck that collected several cars, including those of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, and Tyler Reddick. 

Logano and Elliott respectively finished at the tail-end of the lead lap in the 21st and 22nd positions. The two confronted each other on pit road after the final incident and were able to keep things civil. It’s the latest chronicle in a roller-coaster return to racing for Elliott. The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been in the top three during the final ten laps of each of the past four Cup Series races. Elliott was able to earn a win at the second half of a Charlotte doubleheader last Thursday, but incidents with Kyle Busch at Darlington and now Logano at Bristol have marred an otherwise stellar year.

Clint Bowyer was able to take the runner-up spot, while Elliott’s Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson came home third. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones rounded out the top ten.

The NASCAR Cup Series will now go through a customary full week off before returning to action next Sunday for Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Fold of Honors QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Kevin Harvick retained his lead in the points standings but saw his streak of consecutive top-ten finishes come to an end at 13. Harvick was involved in a late incident with Jones and lost track position after he visited pit road to repair damage. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came home 11th.
  • Rookie Christopher Bell tied his career-best finish at 9th in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota.
  • Austin Dillon came home sixth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to earn his first set of back-to-back top ten finishes since November 2018.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto seeks to finally master Bristol

Bristol has hosted the brightest moments of Matt DiBenedetto’s NASCAR Cup Series career thus far. Could it soon feature his first win?

If and when someone gets their first career NASCAR victory during this fan-free period, it’ll come at the price of not being able to “properly” celebrate. The joyful congestion of victory lane has been temporarily erased so the sport’s return can adhere to continuing social distancing guidelines, an isolated atmosphere described by the original winner of the new normal Kevin Harvick as “awkward”. One can only imagine that the feeling would amplify fortyfold if a driver were to earn their first win during this process.

Matt DiBenedetto doesn’t care about that in the slightest. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford just wants a mere visit to victory lane and is quite pleased with NASCAR’s protocols as it’s the first team sport to return in the wake of the current health crisis.

“I’ve actually been nothing but thoroughly impressed with how smooth everything has gone and how to a T every single person that you see in the garage is following every guideline because we’re all so on the same page and just so appreciative to be racing and willing to do whatever we have to do,” DiBenedetto said in a Zoom media conference call earlier this weekend. “Honestly, it’s gone ten times smoother than I could have possibly imagined and I’m just really, really proud of the effort of everyone. It’s amazing to see that big of a group of people all come together like family and be willing to do whatever, no complaining, just everyone happy to be following every guideline to be putting on a show for the fans.”

DiBenedetto has run 184 NASCAR Cup Series races, a majority of them with microbudget racing squads where merely running at the finish would be equivalent to a win. No wins have followed, but DiBenedetto’s ability to post respectable finishes in subpar equipment, as well as a racing journey that began by swapping his Little League baseball cap for a firesuit, has made him a fan favorite on the circuit.

The Wood Brothers (Leonard and the late Glen) and their iconic No. 21 (previously driven by names like David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, and Ryan Blaney) have provided DiBenedetto the most stable car in his career to date. He has followed through on the potential the Woods saw in him. He currently places 11th in the NASCAR points standings and posted a runner-up finish at February’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas. It was the second runner-up finish of his career.

He returns to the site of the first on Sunday afternoon. The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1). It will be the first visit to “The Last Great Colosseum” since DiBenedetto finished a most heartbreaking second in last year’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race last August.

Then driving Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, DiBenedetto seem poised to earn that elusive first win as he took the lead with 104 laps to go around the half-mile short track. Such a win also would’ve allowed DiBenedetto to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs, which would’ve been a first.

Alas, contact made with the notoriously hard-to-pass Ryan Newman (whom DiBenedetto was trying to put a lap down) slowed the No. 95, allowing another Toyota, the big-budget machine of Denny Hamlin, to take over the lead with a dozen laps to go. Hamling even jokingly remarked that he was “sorry” that he passed DiBenedetto during his postrace interview with NBC.

That evening, one that produced his career-best finish to date, was a bittersweet affair for DiBenedetto. He mentioned that he hasn’t viewed the film from that monumental race.

“That was probably one of the biggest days for my entire career honestly, so that was a moment I’ll never forget, having all the support from the fans,” DiBenedetto said. “That was a crazy moment and I really didn’t even know how to feel because it was probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life, but also one of the most rewarding from the support we had from the fans and everybody. It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel, but ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

Less than a month after that Bristol event, Wood Brothers Racing announced that DiBenedetto would take over their Ford.

Bristol is a track for developing tempers even hotter than the tires. Known as “Thunder Valley”, the track’s cramped quarters can put you in the wall without warning. DiBenedetto, however, has seen his brightest NASCAR days at the track. He has completed over 99 percent of the maximum laps he could’ve run over ten visits. The stadium also played host to DiBenedetto’s first career top-ten finish, a sixth in the 2016 Food City 500. At the time, he was driving the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing.

DiBenedetto’s Bristol prowess could come up big on Sunday. To limit events to single-day proceedings, qualifying has been canceled at most of the events since the circuit came back from the coronavirus-induced pause. A random draw for starting position yielded a ninth-place spot in the starting lineup. Practice has likewise been canceled.

“I would say Bristol would probably be more of the nerve-racking ones of firing off with no practice,” he said. “I think at the mile-and-a-halves and some of these places, Darlington is a little treacherous but not too bad. I’d say the mile-and-a-halves are not too bad. Bristol, there’s just no margin for error. It’s really, really fast. It’s an insanely fast short track. You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in, so I’d say that one will be a little bit more nerve-racking for the drivers.

“It’ll be fine. It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and outpraying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive. If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track, a mile-and-a-half, and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

The series’ descent on Bristol comes at perhaps the perfect time for DiBenedetto. He has finished in the top 20 in each of the first four races since the return, but those finishes haven’t come easy. When qualifying was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto had to go to a backup car when he spun out during his timed run. On Thursday night, the second half of a CMS doubleheader, the No. 21 took the lead on the opening lap but a wreck between Joey Gase and Garret Smithley prevented it from getting into clean air and away from the field. The team wound up settling for a 14th-place finish.

Either way, DiBenedetto is well on his way to posting the best numbers of his career. He holds a 35-point cushion over 17th-place Tyler Reddick in terms of playoff positioning.

But DiBenedetto is confident that his group is capable of more. A 14th-place finish might’ve been cause for celebration in his earlier days, but his current Wood Brothers settings (which includes technical assistance from Penske Racing) have higher expectations…ones DiBenedetto anticipates meeting.

“We do have a little cushion right now, but we as a team have to get a lot better, in my opinion,” he said. “We have a lot of speed. We have great people. We’re just learning each other and we’ve got to close out these races a little better. We’ve got, for sure, the car speed and the people to do it, so it’s nice that we’re still sitting there in points when, honestly, we’re a little bit disappointed with some of our end results of these races because we know that we can do a lot better and we will do better moving forward, so I feel good about that part of it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags