Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – It’s exactly the kind of unmistakable momentum you want with one race remaining before the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin. And so in that sense, perhaps the timing of Brad Keselowski’s first win of the season Sunday night at Darlington Raceway makes up for the near-misses he’s had earlier in the year.
What a positive statement it was for Keselowski, who swept the weekend’s races at the historic track – hoisting not only the Cup trophy on Sunday but the NASCAR Xfinity Series hardware a day earlier. They were the first wins for the former Cup champion ever at the race track, which is considered one of the sport’s crown jewels.
And it was the first win for his legendary team owner Roger Penske at the track since 1975, when he fielded a car for Bobby Allison.
In the hour or so after Sunday’s race, when asked about the impact of his stellar weekend, Keselowski conceded, “Man, I’m kind of in the moment right now. …
“But I would say it’s pretty damned cool. This is such a special racetrack. It always has been, and I think it always will be.”
It was also a significant day for the whole three-car Penske Racing operation, which recorded its first 1-2 finish of the season. Joey Logano finished second to Keselowski and their teammate Ryan Blaney was 15th. The team joins Stewart-Haas Racing’s four-car operation as the only two multi-car teams to have every driver qualified for the Playoffs, which begin Sept. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
As great as the moment was for Keselowski and his No. 2 Team Penske Ford Sunday night, it was a strong message for his competition that the team is peaking at the right time. Although Keselowski had already secured a NASCAR Playoff berth based on points earned, having this victory is exactly the kind of positive momentum a driver wants as the postseason begins.
Keselowski reminded reporters Sunday that he has won a race in 2018 – he won the season-opening Clash non-points race at Daytona – but, he conceded having a regular season win in his pocket was impactful both personally and for the upcoming championship run.
He has now won at least one race for eight consecutive seasons – and he has won at least one race in nine of the past 10 years.
“We won the Clash this year, but y’all don’t count that,’’ Keselowski said. “I do, I got the trophy, but you guys don’t, so I knew for the last 11 weeks all I was going to get was how I haven’t won this year, and now I don’t get that question, and that feels really darned good because I don’t want to answer that one. I’ve been dodging you so I don’t have to answer it.
“To not have to worry about that and kind of keep our winning streak alive for the last few seasons is certainly really special, and with having swept the weekend, the big thing that’s been on my mind, at least from a Team Penske sense, is just getting closer to the Mark Donohue win mark. It’s something that I’ve really put a lot of thought into, and it would be really special to me.
“I think I was four behind entering this weekend, and now I’m two to go, and I really want to hit that mark in my career. That would be huge for myself and for Team Penske to be the all‑time wins leader in a team that’s had so many great drivers, and so to pull that off, quite honestly, that’s one of the first things I think about.’’
That the special mark could happen during a Playoff run is even better. Keselowski had two runner-up finishes before Sunday’s win, including a second place just two weeks ago on the Watkins Glen road course.
In 2018, he had six top-fives and 12 top-10s BEFORE the Darlington race. But DNFs at the three restrictor plate races, where Keselowski is considered one of the best all-time, have been particularly frustrating in an uncharacteristically difficult run for that first season win.
“It’s been really frustrating because we haven’t had the speed we’ve had over the last few seasons, and then the races where I feel like we’ve had the speed, I feel like I completely screwed them up,’’ Keselowski explained. “I felt like before today that we had the speed to win Daytona and Talladega, and that’s probably about it, and I messed both those races up.
“I made one bad move in the draft, got cycled back, and then the wreck happened. And then both the Daytonas, I feel like I made the wrong move, one where I just was too nice to someone and another when I just didn’t anticipate somebody else’s bad move. I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating. And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.
“And so you hope it’s every week. You enter every weekend thinking that. Then you get to the race and it’s not there, and you’re like, oh, what if I never get another car capable of winning again. Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee.”
As the Playoffs begin, Keselowki knows he’s turned in promising numbers. Six of his 25 career Monster Energy Series wins have come during the Playoff portion of the schedule. More than anything, earning that win Sunday night after overcoming a tremendously dominant performance by Kyle Larson, who led 284 of the 367 laps, provides a huge boost of confidence to Keselowski, his team and the whole Penske operation.
And it comes at such a clutch time. This week the team is hoping to earn their team owner Penske his first NASCAR win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he is the all-time Indy 500-winning car owner, taking his 17th trophy just this May.
On top of that, two more wins within Penske’s multi-series operation would get the owner to 500 victories all-time – a feat attainable with the Monster Energy Series and Xfinity Series racing at Indianapolis next weekend.
Motivation is not lacking and for Keselowski, Sunday’s win was exactly the kind of positive re-set he’s confident could be a game-changer.
“Moments like today are just so refreshing,’’ Keselowski said. “They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well, and this is a complete battery recharge for myself and for our team.
“It makes going to the racetrack fun knowing that you’ve won and you can win.”