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|09/22/17||Short Track Extravaganza Set for Sept. 2018|
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Keselowski Shows Resiliency in Moral Victory
Yes, Brad Keselowski gave up the points lead to race winner Jimmie Johnson, a driver who owns Martinsville Speedway to the extent that it wouldn't be a surprise if his name was on the title deed.
But after rallying to finish sixth -- after starting 32nd -- Keselowski can point to Sunday's race as perhaps the greatest of moral victories.
A late-race gamble to stay out on old tires nearly backfired, but Keselowski realized things could have been worse.
"It's like being in a war and surviving a battle," Keselowski said. "It's not necessarily a win, you're just happy to still be living."
Keselowski now trails Johnson by two points, the first time he's been behind since Johnson grabbed a one-point advantage after Dover. The general consensus Sunday evening was that it could have been much, much worse.
Knowing that he'd be near the back of the pack at the drop of the green flag -- and Johnson would be coming through the back markers like a house afire -- Keselowski had to use patience, guile and a nice dose of good fortune to remain on the lead lap during the first quarter of the race.
There were only a handful of cars separating Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet from Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge when David Stremme cut a tire and tapped the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 45.
That not only allowed Keselowski to escape Johnson's clutches for the time being, but it also gave crew chief Paul Wolfe the chance to try a two-tire gamble. He had the crew bolt new left-side tires on the car, and when most of the field went for a conventional four-tire strategy, Keselowski gained 10 critical positions.
Still, it didn't look like he would be able to capitalize on it, as he wound up stuck in traffic for much of the next 100 laps. Wolfe theorized if things would settle down, the car would come to Keselowski.
"It was tough because we felt like right from the start, our car was better on the longer runs," Wolfe said. "We had less falloff. And every time we'd get going, it seemed like the caution would fall. For us, it was continuing to keep tires on it and wait for that long run to come so we could run our fuel window out and hopefully work something out."
The race stayed green for 112 consecutive laps after a Lap 238 restart -- coincidentally about the time Keselowski first broke into the top 10. From that point on, he began to press the issue a little more.
"One thing about Brad, he's smart about taking care of his equipment," Wolfe said. "We know how important the brakes are and keeping the nose clean all day. I think the first part of the race was, 'Let's get a few spots here and there and make sure we're not in jeopardy of going a lap down.' And as we started inching our way forward and the laps started winding down, he got a little more aggressive, and we got the car a little better."
Keselowski was running seventh when Kevin Harvick's engine dumped oil on the track with 26 laps remaining. That set up the biggest call of the race for driver and crew chief, and it was Keselowski's decision to stay out.
It seemed like a logical call, but as all but two of the lead-lap cars peeled onto pit road -- leaving Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. by themselves -- Keselowski knew he was in trouble, especially when Johnson lined up directly behind him on the restart.
The five-time Sprint Cup champion knew it was a chance to not only erase a seven-point deficit but also to put some distance between himself and the pesky challenger who steadfastly refuses to relent from the pressure of the title battle.
So color Johnson confused when he learned Keselowski didn't fade like he expected.
"I felt like it was going to be a problem for him," Johnson said. "I mean, we've been there before and have stayed out and gotten beaten. I expected him to drop a little further back, so with only a two-point margin, he must have stayed up in the top five somewhere."
Johnson played it patiently for three laps, then zoomed past on Lap 485. From that point, Keselowski just was hoping not to get freight-trained by the rest of the leaders. It helped that a multi-car accident with eight laps left brought out the final caution of the day and allowed him to regroup.
* Video: Pit strategy leads to Keselowski, Johnson battle
"Yeah, we needed about three or four more cars to stay out, and we needed to catch a yellow, which we did catch, and that would have evened it back out," Keselowski said. "That didn't happen, and I'm not upset about that. That's just the breaks."
Wolfe understood the gamble and thought it was an aggressive play that could have paid off in the right circumstance. That just didn't happen this time.
"It's a tough call on that," Wolfe said. "I guess you could call that our play to win the race. But with Johnson lined up behind us, obviously we knew how important tires were all day, and with 30-something laps on the tires, at that point it's just how to minimize the spots we lose here.
"[Keselowski] did a great job. He was up on the wheel. He's earning it. We were seventh when the caution came out and we finished sixth. It was great effort. We struggled with this car all weekend, from qualifying into practice. We never really were able to find it. We got it a little bit for [Sunday], but not what we needed to contend for a win."
Their resiliency was tested at Martinsville, and the team passed with flying colors.
Before turning his sights on next week's race at Texas, Keselowski had some words for anyone who thinks his team won't be able to hold up under the intense pressures of the Chase.
"[It] means you can't count this team out," Keselowski said. "This team has a tremendous amount of heart. I'm proud of them.
"This championship is going to come down to Homestead. You have to be in a position where you're in shot of it. We have to do what we need to do to be in contention at Homestead."