Keselowski holds off Chase Elliott for Martinsville victory

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MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 24: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Reese/Draw Tite Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 24, 2019 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in winning Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

An easy victory, right?

Well, not exactly. After Keselowski’s pit crew put him in the lead for a restart on Lap 380, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford spent the rest of the race fending off a determined charge from Chase Elliott.

MARTINSVILLE, VA – MARCH 24: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Reese/Draw Tite Ford, leads the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 24, 2019 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ultimately, Keselowski got to the finish line .594 seconds ahead of Elliott and 1.335 seconds in front of Kyle Busch, who was attempting to win his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in his 1,000th national series start. But it wasn’t easy, as both Elliott and Busch were close enough to capitalize on even the smallest potential mistake.

The victory was Keselowski’s second of the season, second at Martinsville and the 29th of his Cup. It was also Team Penske’s third triumph of the season in six races, equaling the total of Joe Gibbs Racing and the third Cup win for the Ford Mustang, which debuted in the series this year.

“The car was really good,” Keselowski said. “This Ford Mustang… Ford worked really hard in the offseason to build these cars and make them real strong, and so far, so good. Just a great day for our team.

“Awesome execution on pit road, and big credit to (engine builder) Doug Yates and all the engine stuff. Those guys worked really hard. But just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver where you’ve got a great car.”

MARTINSVILLE, VA – MARCH 24: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Reese/Draw Tite Ford, poses with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 24, 2019 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Before Keselowski could claim the grandfather clock trophy that goes to the winner, he had to go to school. Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was a superior short-run car, enabling Elliott to pass Keselowski for the lead on Lap 325, five laps after a restart necessitated by a caution for William Byron’s spin in Turn 4.

Keselowski followed Elliott for 48 green-flag laps—until Matt Tifft spun in Turn 2 on Lap 372—and learned a valuable lesson.

“I don’t know if we were as good as the 9 car, Chase Elliott,” Keselowski said. “He was really strong, but he passed me there with about 200 to go, and I watched him and studied him and kind of broke it down and knew what I had to do to hold him off with that fast of a car.

“And we were able to pull it off that last run.”

Busch was hounding Elliott as fiercely as Elliott was dogging Keselowski, but when Busch was held up in traffic in the late going, Elliott began experimenting with a higher line in the corners.

“I felt like we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “There was a little… I felt like when he did get the lead, there was a little advantage to being out front, being able to work traffic your way and kind of play off it and whatnot.

“But, yeah, I tried to move up there at the end, and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner. But I tried to get to him there in (Turn) 3 (on the final lap). I was pretty well content on moving him out of the way. But maybe next time.”

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin, who recovered from a penalty for an uncontrolled tire. Kevin Harvick was sixth, Clint Bowyer came home seventh, despite being sent to the rear twice for speeding on pit road. Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez completed the top 10.

Notes: Elliott’s No. 9 Camaro was the only Chevrolet in the top 10 at the end of Sunday’s race… All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers – Harvick, Bowyer, Almirola and Suarez – finished in the top 10… With Keselowski leading 446 laps, there were four lead changes among three drivers. Pole winner Joey Logano led the first five laps but faded to 19th at the finish.

Momentum starting to build for Chase Elliott

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chase Elliott may have been disappointed with a runner-up finish in the season’s short track opener at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday because he obviously wanted to win and for much of the race, felt capable of it.

Regardless, his showing was actually a boost of confidence for his Hendrick Motorsports team and may be a timely harbinger of good finishes to come for the sport’s reigning Most Popular Driver.

Even if it was hard to reconcile the competitive near-miss, Elliott was able to seize on the progress.

It’s hard to believe, but Elliott’s finish at Martinsville was the first top-five for the championship winning four-car Hendrick Motorsports organization since the 23-year old won at Kansas last Fall – his third career victory and third of 2018. His 49 laps led Sunday at Martinsville are the first laps out front for him this year and were second only to a dominant Brad Keselowski, whose 446 laps led marks the most ever in a race since Kyle Petty led 484 laps in a 1992 win at Rockingham Speedway.

“It’s really tough. Our NAPA Camaro was good, I felt we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said on pit road following the race. “I felt like when he did get the lead, there was a little advantage to being out front, being able to work traffic your way and kind of play off it and what not.

“I tried to move up there at the end and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner, maybe. But I tried to get him there in [Turn] 3.

“I was pretty well content on moving him out of the way. But maybe next time.”

Until that next time Elliott can find some solace in that first, best run of 2019. The runner-up finish was good enough to move Elliott into the championship top-10 for the first time this season – all positive vibes heading to Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (at 3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The 1.5-mile Fort Worth high banks have been good to Elliott. He scored his very first NASCAR national series victory at Texas back in 2014 – a convincing win in the Xfinity Series and an exclamation point toward what would be his first NASCAR championship.

In fact, Elliott has five top-10 finishes in six Xfinity Series races at Texas and five top-10 finishes in six Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races there. His only non top-10 in a Cup race? An 11th-place finish in this race last year.

His average finish in the Monster Energy Series at Texas is an impressive 7.2 average – his best work on any track on the circuit that’s hosted more than one race. And it’s an especially good sign, considering Elliott’s qualifying efforts there (a 19.7 average).

And at the very least, his work in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at Martinsville this weekend should provide some momentum. It marked the first time Elliott has led a race since Phoenix (16 laps) of last year. He’s led laps in only two of the last 10 races dating back to the 2018 season.

Certainly the one driver who bettered Elliott on Sunday took note.

“You know, I think the stats maybe look a little bit more dominant than I think it really was,” Keselowski said. “I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day today and he passed me there with 150 or so to go. I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it.

“I feel like last Fall we were probably even a little faster than we were today and we lost some spots on that last [pit] stop and it cost us a win, where today it was the opposite of that. We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

All positive signs for Elliott, who heads to a venue where he is statistically strong and fortified with a positive history.

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service

 

Kyle Busch scores hard-fought third at Martinsville

– but it’s not a win

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch was close in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway—just not close enough.

Trying for his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory, Busch was second off pit road under caution for a restart on Lap 456 of 500, but he couldn’t get past eventual race winner Brad Keselowski.

On Lap 457, Chase Elliott drove around Busch to the outside to take second, and that’s the way the race finished. Busch’s third-place run actually hurt his average finish for the season, knocking it down to 2.7 through six races.

Busch qualified 14th on Saturday and struggled through the middle portion of the race, but sound adjustments to his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and excellent work in the pits helped him gain spots on every stop. But those factors weren’t enough to overcome a slight deficiency in speed.

“Even when we unloaded here in practice, we just weren’t quite up on the speed charts like we expected to be,” said Busch, who had won the previous two Cup races at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. “First run off the truck was really good, but as the track took rubber, our car just kind of slowed down and we just didn’t have what we needed there.

“Overall, though, today the midpoint day of today’s race was a bit ugly for us, and then we turned it around, and thankful to have (crew chief) Adam Stevens and all my guys that give me everything that I need to kind of go out there and work with, and we were able to turn our day around. Fast pit stops got us a lot of track position today. It was hard to pass, besides rooting a guy off the bottom, and even when you tried to do that, they just cut your nose off and you lose a spot.

“But overall, we fought hard for today’s finish. Not a finish that we wanted to get. Thought we had a chance to win, actually, but could have been a whole lot worse.”

Two speeding penalties doom Clint Bowyer’s winning chances

Clint Bowyer had one of the fastest cars in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, but he didn’t get a chance to prove how strong the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford could be.

The defending race winner came off pit road fourth after stops under caution on Lap 314, but he was flagged for speeding in Sector 10 and had to restart from the rear of the field on Lap 320. Bowyer quickly worked his way forward and was ninth off pit road on Lap 374 during the sixth caution.

Another speeding infraction in the same sector, however, sent him to the rear once more. Bowyer charged forward again and was seventh when Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag after 500 laps.

“I guess we need to get our stuff together on being on the same page with that pit road speed,” Bowyer said after the race. It’s such an important thing and such a big part of this style of racing, where track position is everything. We push it to the limit, but it’s so hard to practice pit road speed.

“You’ve got trucks on pit road when you’re trying to practice that. I’m not making any excuses, it’s just when you’re trying to pinch every little thing out of it, it was hard this week to practice pit road speed because of all the stuff on pit road…

“It is what it is—we just have to quit beating ourselves.”

Uncontrolled tire costs Denny Hamlin – but not severely

Denny Hamlin was philosophical about the uncontrolled tire penalty that sent him to the back of the field for a Lap 272 restart in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Up to that point, Hamlin had run consistently in the top five, but as good as the cars of race winner Brad Keselowski and runner-up Chase Elliott were, Hamlin didn’t think the infraction cost him a chance to win the race. The most recent Daytona 500 winner worked his way back to fifth at the finish and wasn’t overly disappointed with the result.

“We’ve got to get better,” Hamlin said. “We know that. We’re struggling a little bit right now, for sure, but certainly it’s a team thing. Last week I had a speeding penalty, so it all equals out. If you’re not going to be the best car, you have to execute perfectly.

“The best car (Keselowski) didn’t falter, so it wouldn’t have made a difference either way, but certainly cost us maybe one or two spots today. Nothing to hang our heads about. Overall, a good day.”

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