VICTORY LAP: Keselowski Wins First Career Race at Martinsville

Photo: Getty Images

At Martinsville, seeing a beaten and battered racecar in victory lane is a normality. But the car and driver that ended up there after Sunday’s STP 500 not only was among the cleanest of the entire 38-car field, but also had never experienced what a win at “The Paperclip” feels like.

Brad Keselowski led 116 laps in his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford en route to his second win of the season and first at the 0.526-mile Southern Virginia short-track. He took the lead from Kyle Busch with 42 laps to go after hounding the back bumper of the No. 18 and never looked back.


WHAT TIME IS IT?

Brad Keselowski can throw his watch out the window, because now he has a grandfather clock.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“I don’t like to keep trophies at my house, but this one’s going to my house. That’s how special it is,” Keselowski told Fox Sports 1 while in the make-shirt victory lane located at the start/finish line on the front stretch at Martinsville. “This is awesome.”

“Martinsville is just one of those champions’ tracks. The guys that run well everywhere run well here, and it’s really just an honor to win here and get to compete here,” the 2012 champion went on to say. “This track is 70 years old and a lot of legends have won here. It feels great to be able to join them and bring home a clock.”

Another cool nugget: Keselowski mentioned in the winner’s circle that the grandfather clocks are built in his hometown of Rochester Hills, Mich. He has one as an owner in the Camping World Truck Series, but he’s “glad to bring one back as a driver.”

He also knows how to celebrate a win with the fans. A lot of people hate on Keselowski for his on-track tendencies. But if you hate him for this, you need to see a doctor.


THE FIELD

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Following Keselowski across the finish line to round out the top five were Ky. Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon. Logano had to overcome an over-the-wall-too-soon penalty on the first round of pit stops as well as a flat tire amid a green flag run to get his top five finish. He was two laps down at one point, but the race winner’s teammate persevered all afternoon.

AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. closed out the top 10 with Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Trevor Bayne, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson finishing in positions 11 through 15.

Some other notable finishers included stage one winner Martin Truex Jr. in 16th, Kyle Larson in 17th, Kevin Harvick in 20th, JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez in 30th and 32nd after wrecks, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 34th, who crashed late as well.


THE WOLFE HOWLS

I’m sorry for the really bad pun. But it was there, I took it and ran with it. Moving on.

ANYWAYS, it’s worth noting that Keselowski’s win came with his crew chief Paul Wolfe on the pit box. That seems normal, right? So, why am I mentioning it then?

Because earlier this week, Team Penske announced they would be appealing Wolfe’s suspension and fine stemming from a post-race inspection violation following Phoenix. He served one of the three races at Fontana where the No. 2 finished second last week. But this week, the appeal was well worth the paperwork, as Wolfe would up in victory lane.

“It’s tough when you’re not there,” Wolfe said post-race. “You try to communicate with the guys. There’s that little bit that you miss when you’re just not sitting on the box and being able to communicate with Brad.”

Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske added that they thought Wolfe being at the race track didn’t hurt the No. 2’s performance on track.


FORD FINALLY FINDS VICTORY LANE

This win was the first at Martinsville for Ford Performance since 2002. Yeah, 15 years ago.

The last time the blue oval won at The Paperclip, Kurt Busch was driving for Roush Fenway Racing in his No. 97 Ford. He won the fall race in October of ’02. But that streak is now kaput.


SALTY ROWDY

Kyle Busch, much like his performance in this race one year ago, dominated the majority, leading 274 laps. But in 2017, there was one major difference: no grandfather clock.

Immediately after the final round of pit stops with around 80 laps to go, the No. 18 Camry’s lap times tapered off and Busch ended up surrendering the top spot to Keselowski after a 15-lap battle for the top spot. He did garner 52 total points on the afternoon, though.

“All we did was put four tires on it, and it went to junk,” Busch said of his car’s performance in the last 100 laps. “I hate it for our guys. They’ve deserved all year much better finishes than what we’ve been able to produce, and here’s another one today. Just a frustrating season so far, but we give it everything we got. We do all we can with what we’re given at the particular time and try to execute and do a good job.”

Busch had a short-run car for the second half of the 500-lap event. His lap times in practice sessions all week were solid, too. But unfortunately for the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team, when it counted, things didn’t materialize in the 2014 champion’s favor.

“We were lights out faster than those guys after 20 laps or so,” said Ky. Busch. “There on that run it was at minimum at least three tenths slower the entire time, and that’s why Brad just was able to drive away there at the end. We were really really, really struggling.”


SHR STRUGGLES

Bowyer’s finish of seventh was the highest of all Stewart-Haas Racing drivers on Sunday. Harvick’s 20th, Danica Patrick’s 23rd and Kurt Busch’s 37th weren’t what the doctor ordered. And it’s not like those three drivers ran well and were swept up in a late-race incident. In fact, they all ran poorly throughout the entire race, spending most of their time outside the top 15.

Harvick’s best finish thus far this season was a sixth-place result at Phoenix, a track where he usually contends for wins. He failed to lead a lap there. It’s also worth pointing out that Rodney Childers, his normal crew chief, wasn’t on the pit box. It was Daniel Knost, and he struggled.

Busch has struggled to gain his sea legs since his Daytona 500 win, failing to finish inside the top 10, and Patrick’s best finish of 2017 was a 17th-place result at Atlanta.

It may be a little early to hit the panic button at SHR. But if as the season rolls on, the schedule fills up with more and more types of unique race tracks and the finishes don’t improve, it might be time to start worrying about the organization that made the gigantic manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason. Growing pains are real, but this might be something more.


SENSATIONAL STAGES

The stage racing has been widely accepted so far this season. After some initial pushback from the fans, the three-stage races have been compelling with better racing overall throughout.

They’ve also produced some more aggressive racing towards the end of stages to maximize the amount of points you get in a day’s work. But with increased aggressiveness also comes shorter tempers. We saw that on display first hand at the end of stage two in the STP 500.

Kyle Busch was cruising to the stage victory. But as happens so often at Martinsville, lapped traffic proved to be a costly factor in the No. 18’s pursuit of that one playoff point. He made some slight contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the lap prior to move the No. 17 out of his way. But coming to the green/checkered (to signal the end of the stage), Stenhouse Jr. retaliated.

The Olive Branch, Miss. native shoved Busch up the race track to show his displeasure as well as gain his lap back. In doing so, the No. 24 Sun Energy 1 Chevrolet of Chase Elliott scooted on by and won the stage. Busch wasn’t pleased with Stenhouse Jr. after the race.

“I was trying to be a nice guy, but nice guys don’t finish first,” Busch told reporters post-race.

Stenhouse Jr. said nothing was intentional or ill-willed, he was “(taking) care of” his sponsors and fans. Add another driver to Busch’s payback list, perhaps.


CRASHES GALORE

Martinsville is known for the low lane not only being preferred, but coveted. Drivers play games exiting pit road in order to be an odd-numbered car to get the bottom lane on restarts and scratch and claw their way to the bottom the second they see an opening.

Photo: Getty Images

But the middle/high groove was actually working for some drivers on Sunday, most notably Busch, who ran it with speed most of the afternoon. But that “new” lane also paved the way for some tighter, harder racing–and in return, more wrecks.

There were 14 caution flags on Sunday, surpassing the 13 that Martinsville had in both of its 2016 races combined. The close quarters racing also produced incidents similar to those at Daytona and Talladega, with multiple drivers involved when it was none of their doing.

Hamlin, Suarez, Kurt Busch, McMurray, Dillon, Kahne, Menard, Stenhouse Jr., Earnhardt Jr., Truex Jr., Jones and Kenseth were among the plethora of drivers involved in some form of yellow flag around the short-track. And most of those drivers were able to salvage decent days out of it. That shows you that with a beaten and battered car, you can still survive—and thrive.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Lone Star State and newly repaved and reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway next weekend for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. The NASCAR XFINITY Series will also be in action after their off weekend.

Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the race at TMS last season. He will look to avenge his runner-up finish from this week and shaky start to the season.