Brad Keselowski barely finished on the lead lap at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday.
But with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin wrecking out of the Can-Am 500, his lackluster 16th-place finish was still enough to transfer into the Championship 4 next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” Keselowski said. “I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure. I am just looking forward to going to Homestead.
“This feels a little bit like Christmas. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”
Keselowski started the race 16th and never picked up stage points throughout the day. With Hamlin’s early dominance—including winning Stage 2 and leading 193 laps—the No. 11 Toyota appeared destined to supplant Keselowski for the fourth spot in the standings and a chance at the title.
But Keselowski received a gift when Chase Elliott and Hamlin made contact battling for the same real estate. Hamlin cut a tire and hit the Turn 3 wall on Lap 276. Keselowski’s optimism was short-lived when Elliott took the lead from Matt Kensth eight laps later. Once race winner Kenseth regained the lead on Lap 302, Keselowski was out of the woods.
“You are doing all you can and then some cautions fall and you start to play strategy games and hope that maybe you catch a break strategy wise,” Paul Wolfe, crew chief of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford said after the race. “Then when the 11 had his issues, obviously there was some hope again I guess. It was just kind of staying calm at that point and trying to stay on the lead lap with our points cushion. Then the 24 took the lead and at that point you are getting all you can and there was still a ways to go and it seemed like he pushed so hard once he got the lead that the 20 was able to get back to him.
“It was a frustrating day. A lot of emotions today. I am proud of my team and the guys and what we have done all season that put us in position to ultimately be off today but still have enough points to be able to advance to Homestead. That is the key takeaway for me. We have been strong in these playoffs and scored a lot of points and bonus points and that is ultimately what put us in a great position to be off a little today and still have an opportunity.”
Keselowski won the Cup championship in 2012 before the new system was introduced two years later. Since then, he has never made it to the final four but two of his fellow title contenders Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have and won championship.
Looking towards the finale
Although he was able to persevere at Phoenix, it wasn’t a momentum-building performance entering the season finale. Still, Keselowski believes in his team.
“Homestead is a lot different than Phoenix,” Keselowski said. “Hopefully, we can find what we need to run up front there and catch some breaks and win it. I am very hopeful for that. I am proud of the whole team. We had a solid day of not making any mistakes and that put us in position here. It was a great team effort.
“I just feel glad to make it through today, you know, and have a shot next week. You never know how these things are going to play out. Certainly, would be a stretch by any means by how we ran today to say we're the favorite, but we are glad to be there, and you never know how those races are going to shake out. On to next week.”