Brad Keselowski -- the guy on NASCAR’s Most-Wanted List for much of the week -- retaliated with the ultimate payback after all the sniper fire:
He won at Talladega, punched his ticket to the Chase, and helped squeeze out much of the vaunted Rick Hendrick Racing empire.
It’s kind of a reverse storybook ending, with the guy wearing the black hat eliminating Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, and Jimmie Johnson, the most dominant driver of the last decade.
“These guys are jealous of the job he’s done this year,” team owner Roger Penske said, alluding to most drivers in the garage. “He’s won six races. He’s made poles. He’s been up front. Nobody likes to see a guy win like that. The fact that he has a little edge on him and continually delivering, it makes a difference.”
Keselowski began Sunday afternoon in desperate lockstep with Johnson and Earnhardt Jr., needing a victory to advance to the round of eight in the new Chase playoff format.
And for a while, the driver in best position to pull it off was Johnson, who led the most laps with 84.
But as everyone who understands the quirky dynamics of Talladega knows, leading a bunch of laps never matters. What does is who survives the predictable restrictor-plate carnage.
On Sunday afternoon, it took two green-and-white-checkered finishes – NASCAR’s version of an overtime sprint race – for Keselowski to emerge as the leader of the pack.
He got a nice push from Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano, and then looked in his rear-view mirror to see Matt Kenseth – the guy who had him in a headlock last Saturday night – closing in quickly.
“You can’t drive at Talladega without looking in the mirror,” Keselowski said. “I laughed appreciating the irony.”
But Kenseth couldn’t get close enough to make a move, and Bad Brad had the last yuk-yuk: His sixth victory of the season, and his most critical one.
Keselowski now joins Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon in advancing to the round of eight in the new Chase format.
On the flip side, Earnhardt Jr, Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were eliminated. That’s three-fourths of the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports empire, with Gordon left as the last man standing.
“It feels relieving to go down swinging,” Johnson said. “The last two weeks were really poor. At least we went down swinging. I’ll take some pride in that.”
Johnson, the defending Cup champion, finished 24th and will have to wait for the chance to try to match Richard Petty as the only seven-time Cup champion in Cup history. Earnhardt was a three-time winner this season, including his Daytona 500 victory, but a late-race wreck ruined his afternoon. He finished 31st.
“There have probably been worse things,” Earnhardt Jr. said, laughing. “I’m not retiring or anything, so we’ll try next year. We’ve had a good season and have a lot to be looking forward to. We’re definitely not going to get too torn up about it; we didn’t run well.”
Keselowski, usually one of the most socially engaged drivers in the garage, dialed it down this week after tempers flared during a post-race fracas in Charlotte last Saturday night. Keselowski took a great deal of cyberspace heat, focused on his post-race antics – busting up cars, endangering drivers who had their seat belts and safety devices off, and doing a short and celebratory burnout in the garage. It enraged Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Kenseth to the point of physical confrontations.
Keselowski stayed in his lane, focused on testing at Martinsville and trying to pull off the improbable rally in the standings that mandated a victory. The fact that his owner and his team had his back didn’t hurt, either.
“I have a lot of people around me willing to tell me the inconvenient truth if I was wrong,” Keselowski said. “And people around me weren’t saying that.”
Keselowski didn’t escape unscathed. He was fined $50,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation for four weeks.
“I told him it’s over, it’s over let’s move on,” Penske said. “If he wants to get a little upset at times, that’s OK with me.
“I’ll take the 50 grand and a win this week, wouldn’t you?”