Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR Notebook: Unconventional Tactics Lift Keselowski to Thi

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service —
SONOMA, Calif. –– No one has ever accused Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 team of following conventional wisdom when it comes to race strategy.

Even with crew chief Paul Wolfe missing Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 to be with his wife for the birth of their second child, substitute pit boss Brian Wilson took up the beat of a different drummer.

Keselowski came to pit road under caution on Lap 52 at the end of the race’s second stage. He restarted 23rd behind 21 cars who opted not to pit and behind Jimmie Johnson, who restarted 22nd. As other cars began a long cycle of green-flag stops, Keselowski stayed out.

The laps wore on, and still Keselowski stayed out, eventually inheriting the lead when Jamie McMurray came to pit road on Lap 72. Ultimately, Keselowski’s Ford was the last car on the track that hadn’t made a stop, and his lead reached 10 seconds.

Eventual race winner Kevin Harvick pitted one lap before McMurray, and when he returned to the track on fresh tires, Harvick rapidly ate into Keselowski’s advantage, passing the No. 2 Ford Fusion for the lead on Lap 89.

Keselowski stayed out for four more laps before pitting for fuel and tires.

Over the final 26 laps, Keselowski, now with a tire advantage, charged through the field. He was closing on second-place Clint Bowyer when a caution froze the field on the final lap.

Keselowski’s strategy almost worked. All he needed was a caution in the late going to use his tire advantage. But, uncharacteristically at Sonoma, the caution didn’t materialize until the outcome was decided.

“It was fun,” Keselowski said. “We had a really fast Elite Support Freightliner Ford, and, man, when you have a car that great, you really enjoy every moment of it, and today was a day I really enjoyed.”

And for those who questioned the No. 2 team’s strategy, the proof was in the finish.

“Yeah, it looked like it was putting us behind, but we had such a great long-run car that it played back out for us, which was great,” Keselowski said. “In fact, I think we were hoping to catch a yellow and didn’t catch it.

“If we would have, I think that would have been the race winning move. But still, all in all, a great day for us.”

That Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is only slightly short of miraculous.

Consider this. On Lap 14, Earnhardt lost control of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet approaching Turn 11, slid through the corner and collided with Danica Patrick’s Ford.

On Lap 31, Earnhardt was the meat in a three-wide sandwich entering Turn 4, with Kyle Larson dive-bombing to the inside and Patrick on the outside. A chain-reaction collision sent Patrick spinning into the path of her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose Ford was damaged beyond repair.

But Earnhardt persevered, and with the help of pit strategy designed to gain track position, he restarted second on Lap 55 after the conclusion of the race’s second stage.

With the race running green until the final circuit (Lap 110), Earnhardt held sixth — best among Chevrolet drivers — to post his second straight top 10.

But the driver who will retire from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup racing at the end of the season adopted a more global perspective after the race.

“Long after your career, guys come along and win races, and some of your accomplishments on the track sort of get forgotten,” Earnhardt said. “But who you are as a person never gets forgotten. People never forget who you were. I hope people just thought I was good and honest and represented the sport well.

“I hope people that work with me enjoyed working with me, whether it was in the Late Model ranks or whatever. And I hope the guys I raced against enjoyed racing with me. That’s really all that will matter. Hopefully, I left a good impression. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Denny Hamlin’s Toyota lacked the muscle of some of the stronger cars in Sunday’s Toyota/Save mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, but the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota parlayed spot-on pit strategy and a solid performance into a fourth-place finish at the 1.99-mile road course.

After finishing fourth in the race’s second stage, Hamlin stayed out on older tires and inherited the lead. All told, he was out front on two occasions for a total of 11 laps, fifth most among a race-record 10 leaders.

“It was good — definitely had a great car,” said Hamlin, who finished one position ahead of JGR teammate Kyle Busch. “We didn’t have quite enough at the end.

“We didn’t have real good short run speed. We didn’t really have great long-run speed. We just had good middle speed, and that worked out for us. We had good pit strategy and really passed a lot of cars today, and that’s about what we had.”

Hamlin is currently ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, but he and teammates Busch, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez are winless through 16 races this season.