Brad Keselowski surges late, wins at Charlotte

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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.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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