When tonight’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was effectively transformed into a 23-lap sprint race, Brad Keselowski was the fastest when it counted.
A debris yellow with 28 laps to go set up a frenzied dash to the finish, and Keselowski was able to charge from sixth off the restart to the front with nine laps remaining before going on to score his first Sprint Cup win in the last 38 races.
The late caution ended what had been a dominant run from Jimmie Johnson in the middle section of the race. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon used two-tire stops under the yellow to move ahead of Johnson (who took four tires), and on the restart, Johnson washed up the track in Turn 1 to lose multiple positions.
Johnson would rally to finish fourth, but still ended up just behind Matt Kenseth, who slightly extended his lead over Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to four points.
Keselowski disposed of Kenseth for second place with 18 laps to go and then began his march toward Kahne. With 11 to go, Keselowski was actually able to take the lead but Kahne got a major run on the inside coming off of Turn 4 and beat Keselowski to the stripe, staying ahead.
But two laps later, Keselowski regained the top spot and pulled away to what would be a one-second win over the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
“I love hard racing and there are a handful of guys you can’t race hard with in this [series] because they freak out – Kasey’s not one of them,” Keselowski told ESPN about his fight with Kahne. “He’s an excellent driver and he ran me hard but he ran me clean, and that’s great racing. I’m proud to race with him.
“He did a hell of a job and deserves a lot of credit for it, but at the end of the day, the Miller Lite Ford Fusion was just fast and we persevered.”
Meanwhile, Kenseth was able to save his points lead despite having handling issues with his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the early stages of the race.
“We were off the first two or three runs and I just couldn’t stand it,” Kenseth said. “We just couldn’t get it to turn. But [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] found some adjustments that the car really liked – it really woke the car up mid-race.
“We were so far behind because I’d qualified so poorly and it took all night to get back [up front], but at the very end, he gave me a shot to win and I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.”
As for Johnson, he was ultimately unable to score what would have been a record-breaking seventh career win at Charlotte despite leading 130 laps.
“The last caution certainly shook things up, and I pushed the 5 [Kahne] off into Turn 1 and evidently, I was too close and was in his wake and the car washed up a little bit,” Johnson said about the final restart that cost him dearly.
“…I just lost track position at that point, which was unfortunate. Once I got rolling again, I was fine but I had lost too much at that point.”
Kyle Busch finished fifth, followed by Kevin Harvick in sixth, pole sitter Jeff Gordon in seventh, Ryan Newman in eighth, Denny Hamlin in ninth, and Carl Edwards in 10th.