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Mon, Sep 15, 2014 05:39 AM
Issue of September 10, 2014
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Keselowski leaves field in stitches



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Brad Keselowski hoists a Miller Lite to celebrate his win in the Quaker State 400 Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. It was a night of redemption for Keselowski, who had suffered costly errors the two nights before in the Nationwide and Craftsman truck series. Photo by Wade Bell
July 02, 2014 | 10:51 AM

Most of the time, if you have to have stitches for a cut or some kind of injury, it's not the best of times. For Brad Keselowski, however, he didn't let a few stitches from a broken champaign bottle bother him as he entered Bluegrass Hall at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night. He came into the press conference room all smiles after winning the Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 a few minutes before.

"They even put a winning sticker on it," Keselowski said laughing as he pointed to the dressing decorated with a bright red sticker.

Anybody watching Keselowski through practice and qualifications the days before knew his was going to be the car to beat. Keselowski had the fastest time in the final practice with a speed of 183.1 miles per hour. In qualifying, his Ford Fusion jumped by five miles per hours to a new track record of 188.791, winning the pole by almost two miles per hour over Joey Logano, who started next to Keselowski on the front row.

"Our car was awesome," Keselowski said. "The team did a great job, and I'm just really thankful to have a car this good. I don't know how else to put it. I think this is where we need to be to have a shot at another championship, so I'm just really proud of everyone right now."

Conditions for the race wouldn't be near the same as during qualifications the previous day. The biggest change was in the track itself, as a heavy rain shower washed off all the rubber that had built up during the last two days with the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide series. The track was completely dry by the 7:37 race start.

Keselowski chose the outside of the front row for the drop of the green flag. His Ford Fusion immediately went to the front and by lap 10 and owned a 1.666-second lead over Logano. Denny Hamlin was in the third spot, with Kevin Harvick, who had won the Nationwide series race the night before, in fourth. Rookie Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

Keselowski continued to show his dominance by extending his lead to more than four seconds, catching up on lapped traffic by lap 16. On lap 29, the first of six yellow flags came out, when Hamlin punched the third turn wall after appearing to cut a tire down. Hamlin was limping when he was helped off the track.

"It was a hard hit," Hamlin said. "It looked like the tire just came apart, a product of a green race track, and we were one lap from the competition yellow. My car didn't really give any indication we were burning up the right front."

The field came in for service and to check tire wear during the yellow-flag period. When the green flag flew on lap 35, Keselowski was back in front, with Logano second and Jeff Gordon third. Harvick was still in the fourth position and Ryan Newman had moved up to fifth.

By lap 50, Keselowski's lead had increased to 3.316 seconds over Harvick, who had moved past Logano. The green flag continued to fly through the 75th lap, with Keselowski increasing his advantage to 4.782 seconds. Three laps later, however, all of that went out the window after Kyle Larson slammed the wall hard going through turn one, bringing out a second caution flag.

"That's the first time that's ever happened to me in stock car racing," Larson said after being taken to the emergency medical center at the track. "I heard a big pop and then it just went right. I didn't know we had any tire issues at all throughout the weekend."

Changes came during the pit stops by the leaders. Logano beat Keselowski out of the pits to lead. Harvick's crew had trouble with a left rear tire and he dropped to 16th. When the race resumed, Kyle Busch was third with Ryan Newman fourth and Kasey Kahne fifth. Twenty-eight cars were still on the lead lap.

Keselowski went back in front on lap 87 and opened up a 2.842-second lead over Logano by lap 100. Tires began to wear down, and Keselowski's lead began to shrink as Busch closed the margin to 1.245 seconds. It shrunk even more when a caution for debris came out two laps later for a third yellow.

Logano again beat Keselowski out of the pits to assume the lead. Instead of being passed like the last time, Logano pushed his car to just over a half-second lead. Keselowski, however, rallied to catch Logano to take the lead once again on lap 148 of the 267 laps.

Six laps later, the biggest crash of the night happened in turn two, when Alex Bowman lost control. A blinding smoke cloud sent cars in all directions, with Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola all getting caught up a the melee. Bowman and Kahne were able to stay on the track, while McMurray and Almirola were forced to their garages.

The leaders came in for service, and for the third straight time Logan came out ahead of Keselowski. Just as before, Keselowski went back in front when the race went back to green, his lead reaching 2.13 seconds. Ryan Newman had moved into third, with Busch fourth and Harvick fifth.

Pitting problems continued to be a bugaboo for Keselowski, who again found himself on the losing side as Busch came out in front during a final caution on lap 216. Keselowski later said it was something that would have to be addressed.

"It's not fun, but it's something we have to deal with internally to get better," he said. "It doesn't help out talking about that here. I'm proud we had the car that we had. I still feel like we made progress on pit road from where we've been in years past."

With 47 laps left, the race resumed with Busch leading followed by Newman. Paul Menard moved his yellow No. 33 car to third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. graced the top five in fourth. Keselowski was pushed back to fifth.

Busch owned a 1.022-second lead with 45 laps left in the race. With 25 to go, Keselowski was charging toward Busch quickly, moving back to the second spot. On lap 248, Keselowski was back up front after passing Busch down the backstretch.

From there, the No. 2 car dominated, going all the way to the checkered flag, winning by 1.015 seconds. Busch was second, with Ryan Newman third. Matt Kenseth just missed a podium finish in fourth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth.

"It looked like it was going to come unraveled at the end there with that yellow right in the middle of the pit sequence," Keselowski said. "I knew it was going to be a dogfight to get back to Kyle and race him, but we got there with a really fast car and got a perfect run on him with traffic."

"That (last) caution came out and the perfect moment for us," Busch said. "We were able to beat the 2 to the exit line and keep our spot on the lead lap, then come back around and essentially inherit the lead. We were able to drive away after that last pit stop and build up a good lead. I was just trying to stretch it before I got to traffic. Once I got to traffic, man, I was just so loose."

Newman said good pit stops allowed him to get to the podium, in third place.

"We caught a little bit of a break when the caution came out there when we were on pit road," he said. "We came from fourth to second on that deal. It was just a really good night for the Caterpillar Chevrolet strategy-wise. We kept our track position all night."

"It's something to build on, for sure," he said. "It doesn't mean we're going to go out and win the next race, but it gives up some confidence, and confidence is very powerful in our sport."

Keselowski said he plans on only a short celebration then to get back to work toward earning a second championship. He said he didn't expect the stitches in his hand to be a problem at the next race at Daytona.

"The last time I had stitches, it was seven days or so, which was at Daytona, which is probably the easiest track you could ask for," Keselowski said. "I want to win another championship. I think I have the team to do it with Paul (Wolfe) and the guys. I had the honor to do it with Roger Penske.

"The urgency is now. I don't want to win one championship and that be it for my career. I'm not going to be happy with that. I want to win another championship, but I don't want it to be five or 10 years from now. I don't want to be a guy who contends for it every three or four years. I want to do it each and every year."

Twitter: @TheManiacHiker

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