CONCORD, N.C. – It was just another surreal moment in this disappointing season for defending champion Brad Keselowski.
He pulled away from his pit stall with his jack planted underneath his car. The jack clattered and clanged as Keselowski dragged it around the track for what should have been one race-ruining lap around Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Instead, Keselowski finally caught a break.
A late caution – one that ruined Jimmie Johnson’s shot at a record seventh Sprint Cup Series win at Charlotte – gave Keselowski the chance to make an electric final dash to the finish and end a 37-race losing streak Saturday night. It gave the reigning champ his first victory of the season in a year in which he’s challenged for victories, but for one reason or another couldn’t close the deal.
It made him ineligible to defend his championship, so Keselowski’s win was the rare victory for a non-Chase driver in a postseason race. Kasey Kahne at Phoenix in 2011 was the last non-Chase winner.
We’ve had speed in our cars. There’s been weeks where we’ve had the execution, not as many as we want, but we haven’t always had those pieces together, and then there’s been weeks where we’ve had the speed and execution, we’ve just had some rotten luck, Keselowski said.
The caution with 27 laps remaining was for debris on the backstretch, as Johnson had a healthy lead in a fairly uneventful race. Before the yellow, it seemed certain Johnson would win and pass Matt Kenseth for the Sprint Cup Series points lead at the halfway point of the Chase, while Kenseth would likely catch teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race to finish third.
Everybody headed to pit road, where Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon were the only two drivers to take two tires. They were the first two back onto the track, while Johnson led everybody else off as the first driver with four fresh tires. Only Johnson lost four spots on the restart with 23 laps remaining, while Keselowski picked his way through traffic from sixth to second.
Once he set his sights on leader Kahne, he stalked him around the track until he could make a pass for the lead stick with nine laps remaining.
The victory gave team owner Roger Penske a win from every one of his drivers this season: Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney, Sam Hornish Jr. and Joey Logano in NASCAR, and Helio Castroneves and Will Power in IndyCar.
Kahne was second and followed by Kenseth, who increased his lead in the standings by one marker to four points over Johnson as the series shifts to Talladega.