LOUDON, N.H. – For Brad Keselowski, it’s beginning to look an awful lot like 2012 when everything went right on the way to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
Keselowski led 138 of the last 232 laps to win Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 for his third Sprint Cup victory of the season. He held off Kyle Busch on the final restart and pulled away to win by three-quarters of a second in a green-white-checker finish.
“I’m not thinking of anything else right now (other) than how thankful I am to have a team and a car that is clicking well,” said Keselowski from Victory Lane. “It’s every driver’s dream.
“I think, in a lot of ways, we’re stronger than (2012). I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver. I think we’re combining all those things and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor – with more to come.”
Keselowski, 30, captured his first Sprint Cup championship in 2012 on the strength of five victories and 23 top-10 finishes in 36 starts. After failing to qualify for the Chase last season, he’s produced 10 top-10 performances in 19 races this season.
“We were fast last year at this time but we weren’t executing,” said Keselowski, who also won Saturday’s Sta-Green 200 Nationwide Series race and had dominated the speed charts during Saturday’s Sprint Cup practice sessions. “This year we’re executing and we have a lot of momentum. It really feels like we have hit our stride.
“At the same time, we have a lot of potential still left in our team. Everybody is going to turn it up a notch when the Chase comes and we know that. You’ve got to have a good horse and we had that today. (But) we know we have to have another gear to grab to be able to run for a championship. I think we’re close but I want to keep pushing.”
Presuming they attempt to qualify for the next seven races, Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th) became the first two drivers to clinch spots in the Chase thanks to their showings on Sunday.
“I’m proud of our team for that,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully we can improve before we come back here (for the second race of the Chase). That was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a 10th-place finish. We (were) off all weekend – a real frustrating weekend to be honest.”
Keselowski seemed to be in cruise control, leading Denny Hamlin by 2.91 seconds with four laps remaining. But Justin Allgaier spun and struck the wall, bringing out the race’s seventh caution flag and necessitating the fifth green-white-checker finish of the 2014 season and juggling the field.
As soon as the yellow flag came out, Hamlin headed to the pits for a splash of gas and settled for eighth place. Jeff Gordon, who had been running third, ran his Hendrick Chevrolet out of gas and was relegated to 26th place. Kevin Harvick started second alongside Keselowski but ran out of fuel on the restart.
“We had what I thought was the second-best car,” Hamlin said. “I had to save fuel and couldn’t push it. I would have liked to have seen if we could have raced with the (No.) 2, but he obviously had a very dominant car.”
The fuel situation left Busch and Clint Bowyer as the only drivers with a real shot at Keselowski in the final two laps.
In the end, neither had anything for Keselowski.
“I don’t think anybody did,” said Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Toyota was strong enough to sit on the pole and lead 62 laps.
“We made a gusty call at the end to stay out and see if we could make it on fuel. We barely made it – ran out right at the start-finish. All in all, a decent day to be coming home second.”
Bowyer, who led 36 laps after leading a total of 12 in the previous 12 Cup events, faded to sixth behind rookie Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.
Keselowski’s power was evident when crew chief Paul Wolfe opted to give up the lead and take four tires when the race’s second caution came on Lap 113. It took Keselowski 13 laps to drive from 10th place to third and 10 more laps for him to get to the rear bumper of the leader, Kenseth. Throughout the race, Wolfe opted for fresh tires over track position.
“I really was not sure how that was going to work out and unfold,” Wolfe said. “Seeing that, I felt pretty good about the strength of our car and what Brad was able to do moving through traffic.”
Team owner Roger Penske also liked what he was seeing.
“Paul made great calls today,” he said. “Watching Brad – and I got to see it from up on top – I can tell you there was nobody that could beat him. It was just great execution from everybody.”
Keselowski became the 13th different winner in the last 13 Cup races at New Hampshire, tying a record set at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch has now finished second at New Hampshire in three consecutive races.