BRISTOL, Tenn. — The race to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship heated up Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Brad Keselowski moved a step closer to making the field by continuing his monthlong march through the standings.
Keselowski won the Irwin Tools Night Race for his third victory of the season and at minimum likely locked up one of the two wild cards into the 12-driver field.
It’s an amazing turnaround for Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing team.
He was ranked 21st in points four races ago, when his struggling team went to a test session to work on road course improvement. But Keselowski was in a nasty accident during that Aug. 3 session that left him with a broken ankle.
It’s hardly slowed him.
Since the accident, Keselowski won at Pocono, finished second at Watkins Glen, placed third at Michigan and now has the Bristol victory.
Although he’s walked gingerly in the month since the crash, he hopped up and down in excitement as he climbed from his Dodge.
“An awesome car, an awesome team!” he yelled. “Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt won this race. It’s a race of champions. There are races that pay more, that are races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all.”
The win moved Keselowski up one more spot to 11th in the standings, and he’s jumped 10 spots over the past four races. He’s in position to claim the first wild-card spot and could clinch his berth Sept. 4 at Atlanta by virtue of his three wins.
What’s the secret of his turnaround?
“A team that just starts to click and believes in each other,” Keselowski said. “We’ve just made good adjustments to our cars over the last few months. We made good adjustments to our car today, and we find ourselves in Victory Lane. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.”
Other Chase hopefuls didn’t fare so well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Clint Bowyer began the race ranked ninth, 10th and 11th, but because none has a victory, they could get bumped out of the Chase depending on how the wild cards develop. Earnhardt wasn’t a factor Saturday night and finished 16th, Bowyer struggled the entire race and was 26th, and Stewart had a miserable weekend — he qualified last in the 43-car field, quickly was lapped and finished four laps down in 28th.
It was no better for Paul Menard, who could earn a wild-card spot based on his victory at Indianapolis. But he struggled, ran into the back of Denny Hamlin as they tried to avoid an accident in front of them and wound up 30th.
At the front of the field, Martin Truex Jr. finished second and Gordon third despite leading a race-high 206 laps. Five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth, who led 110 laps.
Hamlin, clinging to one of the wild cards, rallied to finish seventh despite Menard running into the back of his car to cause serious damage. He jumped one spot in the standings to 13th and is holding the second wild card because of his one win this season.
“We did what we had to do,” Hamlin said. “I wish I could race harder, but at this point we have to have solid finishes. If we just handle business the next couple weeks then we’ll be OK.”
Kyle Busch, who on Friday picked up his record 50th Nationwide Series victory and was looking for his third consecutive win at Bristol in the Cup race, finished 14th after bringing out the final caution of the race with 87 laps to go when a tire issue sent him into the wall.
The finish also cost him in the standings: Busch now is tied with Johnson for the Sprint Cup Series points lead.
“Kind of disappointing day,” Busch said. “We just never could get the car to where it would feel like it had in the past.”SPRINT CUP STANDINGS
Pos., Driver, Points
1. Kyle Busch, 830
2. Jimmie Johnson, 830
3. Matt Kenseth, 798
4. Carl Edwards, 795
5. Kevin Harvick, 782
6. Jeff Gordon, 782
7. Ryan Newman, 762
8. Kurt Busch, 749
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 728
10. Tony Stewart, 710
11. Brad Keselowski, 689