Hey, if you’re Brad Keselowski, wouldn’t you want to make sure you won at least one race at the track your boss built?
Back in the mid-1990s Roger Penske transformed land under what had been a steel plant into what now is known as Auto Club Speedway in southern California. Keselowski, who drives for Penske, had never done much at the track. In fact, it was arguably his worst.
Then Sunday happened. Specifically the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish happened. Exploiting the advantage of four new tires, Keselowski passed Kurt Busch and won the Auto Club 400.
The last lap was the only time that Keselowski led this race.
“We’ve won races and a championship together,” Keselowski said. “That makes for a lot of trust. We know you don’t win a 400-mile race in 200 miles.
“You just keep working on the car to make it better.”
A little daring by crew chief Paul Wolfe opened the window to win during a late pit stop. Some drivers took two tires, some took none. Wolfe told Keselowski to come in for four, that the extra time in the pits was worth it to give him a chance to drive through the field.
“Tires are worth a lot here, and once you put on a lap you can produce a lot of grip,” Wolfe said.
Especially so at Auto Club, a track that hasn’t repaved the driving surface since the place opened in 1997. That makes for a rough feel – tires wear quickly – but also the opportunity to maneuver. There is occasional four-wide racing, so Keselowski had options to weave through traffic.
“I knew I had a car with new tires, so I’d be strong and fast,” Keselowski said. “So I knew if I found the right spots I had the ability to win this race.”
Keselowski was 17th when he emerged from pit road. He worked his way to sixth by the time a second caution came out during the original green-white-checkered restart.
Keselowski expressed frustration over his radio, telling Wolfe what bad luck it was there’d be another restart. Wolfe told Keselowski he missed the point – the advantage of his new tires would be multiplied by a second restart and now he might win the whole thing.
“Paul said, ‘No! This is really good! Now we have a shot at the whole race,’” Keselowski said.
By then Keselowski’s mind was racing: What to do in those final two laps to save a race at a track where his team had constant bad luck?
He said he was so focused on what to do he was oblivious as to a part flying off another car during one caution or to Greg Biffle’s spinning after the last restart (NASCAR did not react to Biffle’s accident with another caution).
“When the yellow comes out, you can’t fret over what that yellow is for,” Keselowski said. “There are so many other things that occupy you. I don’t waste any brain space on” wondering what happened.
This race had been mostly dominated by Kurt Busch, who finished third, and Kevin Harvick, who finished second. Busch tapped the wall after Keselowski passed him, allowing Harvick to overtake him.
Penske noted that Keselowski drove the fastest lap by any driver in this race on that last one. He expected no less from the driver who won the Sprint Cup championship in 2012.
“This is a game about knowing how to use your clubs,” Penske said, making a golf analogy. “We know Brad can do that.”
Keselowski was philosophical about how unlikely it was he won Sunday. He said he needs to remind himself how good this felt next time luck turns against him.
“The last two years here we had great race cars and it all just fell apart,” Keselowski said.
“When you win one like today you temper that with knowing you’ll lose one like that with a dominant car. That’s just how this sport goes.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell