CONCORD — No chance at a championship does not mean there is nothing to race for – a fact Brad Keselowski was more than happy to point out to any doubters.
Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, failed to qualify for the Chase this season, but someone forgot to tell him Victory Lane in the season’s last 10 races is generally reserved for title contenders.
Instead, it was Keselowski who claimed his 10th series victory and first at Charlotte Motor Speedway after a wild duel in the final 15 laps with Kasey Kahne in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.
Keselowski became the first driver not in the Chase to win a race in the 10-race Chase since Kasey Kahne’s victory at Phoenix in November 2011.
“I never thought we couldn’t compete. I don’t look at those things and say just because you haven’t done something or someone else doesn’t want to do it, that it can’t be done,” Keselowski said. “That’s just setting yourself up for failure.
“The perception is, and rightfully so, that the guys that are in the Chase are the cream of the crop. That’s how obviously they would make it in the Chase and they should win races, and probably sweep the Chase, but this is a very good team.”
It’s also a team that has faced a minefield of obstacles this season – from badly timed cautions, to engine woes to simple mistakes by the team and driver.
Even Saturday night’s race began with a bump – when Keselowski was penalized early in the race for driving out of his pit stall with the car jack still wedged under his car.
“It’s just been kind of one of those years where you say, ‘How much more can they throw at you?’ ” he said. “I think we ran out of things for them to throw at us with the jack and still found a way to win, so that was very special.”
The victory doesn’t change the dynamics of his season much. Keselowski moved to 14th in the series standings – the highest he can go since the Chase has 13 participants this season.
The victory was, however, a welcome respite for the driver and his No. 2 Penske Racing team.
“We knew we had good cars, and we’ve got the best drivers. It was a matter of executing, and I never lost confidence,” said team owner Roger Penske.
“I’m a guy that the glass is half-full, not half-empty. I wanted to see Brad get a win. He didn’t want to go through this season (without a win) after being the champion.”
While Keselowski enjoyed the celebration, the top contenders for this season’s championship basically fought to a draw.
Series points leader Matt Kenseth rallied late in the race to finish third. His closest competitor in the title hunt, Jimmie Johnson, finished fourth, and Kyle Busch was fifth.
Kevin Harvick, third in points, ended up sixth in the race, and Jeff Gordon, fourth in points, was seventh.
The race didn’t alter the 2013 title picture as much as it reaffirmed it.
“In the big picture, it was a great night. We have to be able to run in the top-five every night, and we definitely had a top-five car all night, and it just took all night to get there,” said Kenseth, who holds a four-point advantage over Johnson.
“We just need to get out of Talladega, and then hopefully we can go to Martinsville and qualify a little better and have some better track position to work with.”
Until a late-race caution bunched the field, Johnson appeared headed to a victory and with it, perhaps the series points lead.
Johnson emerged from a round of green-flag pit stops with his lead intact, but a caution on Lap 308 of 334 for debris on the backstretch sent all the teams to pit road for fuel and tires.
Kahne was the first off pit road after taking just two new tires, while Johnson was third. Keselowski was outside the top-five but on four new tires like Johnson.
On the restart, Johnson got shuffled back to seventh. Keselowski passed him and powered on to catch Kahne in a wild back-and-forth battle over several laps. Johnson could only rally to fourth.
“If we could have come out second (from pit road) which was really close with (Gordon) and start on the front row, I think it would have been a much different result for us, but it didn’t happen,” Johnson said.
“We led some laps, had a good car.”
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