NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Pounces on Restart to win Brickyard

NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Pounces on Restart to win Brickyard

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Brad Keselowski seized opportunity on the final restart of Monday's rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard to pass Denny Hamlin in the final five miles to win Penske Racing's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Not many knew what to expect, as rain washed out practice and qualifying, and drivers raced into turn 1 on the first lap not knowing fully what to expect. In the end, the delays and championship implications created one of the more exciting races fans have seen at the speedway in recent memory. The race win propelled Keselowski to fourth in the championship standings as the playoffs get underway this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and solidified the field of 16 drivers who will begin their quest to make it all the way to Miami to be one of the four contenders still eligible to hoist the championship trophy.

This week the championship battle truly gets underway at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Points for the 16 championship contenders have been reset, and the pressure to perform grows. Some, like Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, will have nothing but confidence. Most know they have work to get done to compete at the same level. The 10-race string that will decide the 2018 champion is a long stretch for teams to improve, but results must come quickly in order to survive each of the cuts. The playoff format leaves little room for error, and one bad race

Brad Keselowski seized opportunity on the final restart of Monday's rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard to pass Denny Hamlin in the final five miles to win Penske Racing's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Not many knew what to expect, as rain washed out practice and qualifying, and drivers raced into turn 1 on the first lap not knowing fully what to expect. In the end, the delays and championship implications created one of the more exciting races fans have seen at the speedway in recent memory. The race win propelled Keselowski to fourth in the championship standings as the playoffs get underway this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and solidified the field of 16 drivers who will begin their quest to make it all the way to Miami to be one of the four contenders still eligible to hoist the championship trophy.

This week the championship battle truly gets underway at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Points for the 16 championship contenders have been reset, and the pressure to perform grows. Some, like Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, will have nothing but confidence. Most know they have work to get done to compete at the same level. The 10-race string that will decide the 2018 champion is a long stretch for teams to improve, but results must come quickly in order to survive each of the cuts. The playoff format leaves little room for error, and one bad race can be the difference between making it to Miami or getting knocked out in the first round.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski closed out the regular season in the best way possible, by chasing down and passing Hamlin for the win on the final restart of the Brickyard 400, his second in as many weeks. It was Penske Racing's first Brickyard 400 win and propels Keselowski into the playoffs with the wind fully in his sails. He has two previous wins at the track and raced to a sixth-place finish earlier this season. Keselowski has repeatedly said that his team can be contenders in the playoffs and has proven that to be the case in the final races of the regular season. Keselowski appears to be the guy poised to step in should one of the three favorite championship contenders falter.

Kevin Harvick – The afternoon went bad quickly for Harvick after an uncontrolled tire under the lap 10 competition caution dropped him to the rear of the field. Luckily it was early, giving him plenty of race distance left to recover. The team may point at that mistake as the reason they missed out on the win on Monday, but they did well to haul their way back up to capture a top-five finish despite the mistake. Harvick has been stalking the 2018 championship since the very start of the season, and his charge truly gets underway this week with the first race of the playoffs. He has two prior Las Vegas wins including last season, which puts him in a confident position for fantasy rosters.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer won the first stage of Monday's delayed Brickyard 400 by leveraging pit strategy and a perfect restart. He led just a handful of laps but picked up important bonus points with the checkered flag. Those moves gave him track position from which he benefited with a fast car in the following stages that allowed him to battle for the lead. In the end, his final restart wasn't enough to push him far enough forward to contend for the win, but he did walk away with another top finish in a very respectable season with more to come. Bowyer's two victories this season put him just behind the top three championship favorites as the playoffs commence. At Las Vegas he has one top-five and four top-10s from 13 career starts.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin was dialed in at Indianapolis on Monday. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver admitted the season to this point has been underwhelming, but he drove with purpose on Monday. He and his team put themselves in perfect position to battle for the win in the closing laps of the brickyard 400 but couldn't hold off the fresher tires of Keselowski. While Hamlin was terribly disappointed in the result, he demonstrated that the team has improved, and he may even come into the playoffs with greater hunger than had he won. Speaking of winning, he has never done so at Las Vegas. He does have six top-10s from his 13 career starts, however.

DOWNGRADE

Alex Bowman – The last thing Alex Bowman needed on Monday was to get caught in someone else's problem, but that is exactly what happened. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was on the outside of A.J. Allmendinger when the No. 47 car got loose and pushed Bowman into the outside wall. The incident put him outside of the top 30 and opened the door to the potential of missing the playoffs. In the end, his point tally was enough to see him through the scare, though. Making the playoffs is a big boost for the driver in his first season with the team, but he remains a question mark for fantasy owners. He had 16th-place finish at Las Vegas earlier this year, which is his best result at the track.

Martin Truex Jr. – A brake issue sent Truex spinning and out of the Brickyard 400 before the first stage was complete. The championship contender would have preferred a better finish to the regular season but will head to Las Vegas on the back foot. Sunday's crash marked the second time in the last three races Truex was classified 30th or worse. Furniture Row Racing also announced it would cease operations at the end of the season, and while Truex and most of the team's personnel will likely find homes in 2019, the news came as a shock given their competitiveness. Truex will most likely be a full-time member of Joe Gibbs Racing next season, but Furniture Row Racing will need to improve quickly to finish their stint in the series on top.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson pointed to Indianapolis as a race that could turn his lackluster season around but instead delivered more of the same. He spent much of the race mired in the middle of the pack, which is very emblematic of what fantasy owners have come to expect from the former champion. By all accounts Indianapolis is a venue at which he should have excelled. The organization seemed to get a handle on their cars recently with teammates running competitively, but Johnson has languished behind. He had just one top-10 in the five races prior to Monda and limps into the playoffs appearing highly likely to be eliminated in the first round. His four prior Las Vegas wins should not be viewed as an indicator of potential success this week.

Kasey Kahne – Kahne never even made it to practice for this past week's Brickyard 400 after feeling ill following the Southern 500 two weeks ago. The driver, who is leaving full-time competition next season, said he struggled during the last portion of the Darlington race and removed himself from the car this past week as a precaution. He suffered similar issues last season during his Brickyard win, and said the symptoms just got worse over the past season. He said the health concerns factored into his decision to leave at the end of this season, and is working with doctors to find the cause. Fantasy owners will have to stay tuned to learn when Kahne may return for the final races of his full-time Cup career.

Jamie McMurray – Former Brickyard winner McMurray returned to the speedway for what could be his last time in the No. 1 machine. Reports surfaced this past weekend that strengthened rumors that Kurt Busch was targeted to drive the No. 1 car beginning in 2019. No parties offered any comment on the matter, but McMurray's results this season haven't been what owner Chip Ganassi typically expects from his teams. McMurray entered the weekend 21st in points and needing a victory to head to Las Vegas as part of the playoff picture. McMurray has won some of the sport's biggest races but hasn't been a consistent contender for the championship. He has just one top-five from 16 Las Vegas starts with an average finish of 17.9.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth pulled off a remarkable stage win Monday in what has been another difficult season for Roush Fenway Racing. The part-time driver leveraged his position on track to drive to the victory when leaders ahead decided to pit for tires and fuel. The shuffle left Kenseth on track to claim a rare 2018 boost for the team that has not had much to cheer about for many seasons. However, the team still has a lot of work to do to close the gap to the front of the field. Kenseth himself said he was under no illusions of greatness in agreeing to return to the outfit. He will return to the car again in Dover, Martinsville, Phoenix and Miami, and has remained tight-lipped about his plans beyond that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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