NASCAR: Keselowski Leads Penske 1-2 in Darlington

Source: Twitter (@Team_Penske)

Brad Keselowski led home Penske teammate Joey Logano to victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington.

On a night where most of the drivers ran throwback paint schemes to legends of the past, Keselowski, driving a Rusty Wallace inspired scheme, picked up his first win of the season to give himself some much-needed playoff points ahead of the Playoffs in two weeks’ time.

The driver to beat for most of the race was Chip Ganassi’s Kyle Larson. Larson took the lead from polesitter Denny Hamlin early in Stage 1, and would go on to win both stages leading 284 of the 367 laps.

What prevented Larson from closing out the victory was poor execution on pit road and a slight lack of short-run speed.

When the caution flag flew with just over 20 laps to go for a spin for Jeffrey Earnhardt, the final pit stops were likely to dictate the outcome of the race. In a three-way race off pit road, Keselowski beat out Larson and Logano to have crucial control of the restart.

To compound Larson’s misery, he struggled early on after the restart, losing second to Logano on Lap 352 on his way to finishing third.

Kevin Harvick battled for the lead briefly in Stage 2 on his way to fourth, whilst Chase Elliott continued his strong summer with a fourth top-five in six races in fifth.

It was a notable day for Chris Buescher in the #37 Chevrolet as he battled in and around the top 10 for most of the race on his way to a 13th place finish. The 2015 Xfinity Series champion has impressed many this season by gaining a slight edge over teammate AJ Allmendinger.

With just one race to go at Indianapolis before the playoffs begin, much of the focus was on the battle for the final transfer spots into the title showdown.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman hold the final two places currently, but neither were able to secure their position after difficult races for both of them.

Johnson was already struggling after an early unscheduled stop for a loose wheel compounded with a penalty for a commitment line violation left him multiple laps down. A blown engine after 227 laps finished his day off in a lowly 39th.

Bowman meanwhile saw his day unravel after running in the top 10 in the early stages. A flat tyre in Stage 1 put him two laps down and the #88 team were never able to recover, eventually finishing in 23rd.

All this means that whilst Johnson and Bowman cannot be overtaken by any other drivers on points, a win for a driver not currently in the playoff picture would mean that one of the pair would lose their playoff place.

Johnson has a 19-point lead over Bowman in the standings so a solid day for the seven-time champion should ensure he keeps up his 100% record of making the post-regular season action.

In the battle to be regular season champion, Kyle Busch is close to securing that trophy after a seventh place finish left him 39 points ahead of Harvick. Only a problematic day for Busch at Indy would prevent from picking up the extra playoff points.

But it was Keselowski who was celebrating the hardest on Sunday. Chugging beers in Victory Lane, he spoke of the importance of having short-run speed, and went to Twitter to say just how much a Darlington win meant to him.

Next weekend’s Brickyard 400 is another iconic race for the drivers to compete for. Who will be kissing the bricks on Sunday?

1. Brad Keselowski
2. Joey Logano
3. Kyle Larson
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Chase Elliott
6. Kurt Busch
7. Kyle Busch
8. Erik Jones
9. Jamie McMurray
10. Denny Hamlin