Brad Keselowski bumped his way past Denny Hamlin with two laps to go on Monday and went on to win the rain-postponed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard on Monday afternoon.
The victory, which gave team owner Roger Penske his first in a stock car race victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after winning 17 times there in Indy cars, was the second of the year for Keselowski. He also won last week at the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The key to the victory was a decision by Keselowski’s crew chief — Paul Wolfe — to pit later than other teams on the final green-flag stops. That gave him the better rubber on the final laps.
“He made a heck of a call to pit late in that run,” Keselowski, who led just nine laps, said. “We came out eighth and he gave me the ball, you know? He gave me the ball and I had to make a play. We weren’t a dominant car by any means, but Paul executed an incredible race and I just had to do my job. Here we are in Victory Lane at the Brickyard.”
Wolfe said of the win, “It’s something that hasn’t been done at (Team) Penske. Roger has had a lot of success here, done a lot of things. Obviously this one’s for him.”
Hamlin appeared to have command of the race over the final laps, but a series of wrecks closed up the field and forced a couple of late race restarts. Asked what he needed to hold off Keselowski and get his first win of the year, Hamlin said, “Not have meaningless guys in the back wreck. I don’t know what they’re doing crashing with a couple laps to go while multiple laps down. Meaningless.”
Erik Jones of Joe Gibbs Racing finished second, while Hamlin slipped to third in the No. 11 Gibbs Toyota.
The race cemented the field for the upcoming Cup Series playoffs, which start next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Unless a driver were to win his first race of the season Monday — none did — only two berths remained available for the playoff when the race started. Those two berths went to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson — who will chase his series-record eight championship — and Alex Bowman.
Bowman needed the winner’s help as he was involved in a wreck on Lap 67 and fell multiple laps off the pace. Had Hamlin held on to win, Bowman would have been out.
The 16 drivers who will compete in the playoffs are Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Keselowski, Jones, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Johnson and Bowman.
The green flag dropped a couple of minutes after 2 p.m. with Kyle Busch on the pole and Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing lining up next to him.
Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing won the first stage — his first of the season — while part-time Roush Fenway Racing driver and former Cup champ Matt Kenseth won the second of the three stages.
Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 Cup champion who has won four races this season, will start the playoffs sans momentum. Early in the race, he suffered a race-ending incident.
“Left-front brake rotor exploded and went through the hood,” the Furniture Row Racing driver said.
—Field Level Media