HAMPTON, Ga. — Brad Keselowski has said for years that if he hadn’t become a race car driver, he would have enlisted in the armed services.
That passion meant that hoisting the American flag after his win in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 was an even sweeter reward than being all but locked into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Keselowski led only the final seven laps en route to his 22nd career Cup victory, stealing the victory laurels from a dominant Kevin Harvick and giving Ford back-to-back wins to start the year.
The win came after Keselowski lost the lead lap following an unscheduled pit stop for a tire issue at lap 118, and had a second issue on lap 267 with loose lug nuts on his No. 2 AutoTrader Ford.
“Winning one of these Cup races isn’t easy,” said Keselowski, who led three times for 21 laps. “There are all kinds of adversity that comes at you, no matter who you are. Kevin (Harvick) was very, very strong and probably was the guy to beat. We persevered and had our own issues with a tire and a loose wheel and we just fought through it all day. Gosh, it feels so good … and we got to fly the American flag at the Folds of Honor race. It just seems right.
“I love winning! You know, when you win, you don’t know when you’re going to win again and you go through some spells … but gosh, it feels good to get a win early in the season like this. That was a great race with Kyle (Larson) and everybody. We thought we were one of the cars to beat at Daytona and we got wrecked out there and never got to show our potential. We came here and kept our heads up this week and this is the result due to the whole team’s effort.”
Harvick appeared to be the sure bet to go to victory lane, leading 292 of 325 laps, but a speeding penalty with 14 to go put him 35th in line and took him out of contention for the win.
That set up a restart with Larson and Matt Kenseth on the front row, with an 11-lap dash deciding the last winner on Atlanta’s weathered track surface.
Larson got the jump off the green flag, but couldn’t keep his car on the bottom in turns one and two as the circuits ticked off. Ultimately, when he washed high with seven to go, Keselowski got a run down the backstretch to clear the No. 42 and never looked back.
Keselowski took the checkered flag .564 of a second clear of Larson, whose runner-up finish comes a week after he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
“Here at Atlanta, I don’t do a good enough job of running the top, so that’s why I committed myself to the bottom all day. After we got that Christmas present there … I knew Brad was going to be tough to beat. I spent a lot of time around him today
“To finish second this early in the year is awesome. We had a shot to win the (Daytona) 500 and had a shot again today, so that’s all you can ask for.”
Kenseth finished third ahead of Kasey Kahne and hometown favorite Chase Elliott, who rallied from a speeding penalty on lap 211 to round out the top five after challenging for the win in the final 50 laps.
Joey Logano, Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished sixth through eighth, while Harvick came back to finish ninth in the end ahead of Jamie McMurray.
“I was going too fast on pit road, apparently,” Harvick lamented. “I just really hate it for everybody on our team. They put a great car under me and we did everything we thought we needed to do.”
“I knew I needed to be close to pit road speed because we were having trouble getting out of the box … but I didn’t think I was pushing it that close. When (the car) gets to bouncing there and you can’t really tell what speed you’re at, that’s why there are so many speeding penalties on pit road here. You just have to run it so close to the line, and I was too fast.”
In a race that ran nearly as clean as the 2016 edition, when the first 210 laps ran uninterrupted, only the two stage breaks slowed the pace for the first 239 circuits on Sunday.
However, four cautions slowed the pace over the final 86 laps before Keselowski ended the day in victory lane.
Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones was the highest-finishing rookie in 14th.
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…