Keselowski earns pole for final Nationwide Series race at Homestead

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Brad Keselowski originally was not scheduled to compete in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 season-ending NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

Joey Logano was originally slated to run the Team Penske No. 22 Ford, but with his focus on winning Sunday’s Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Keselowski was a late replacement.

Even though he was thrown into it, Keselowski obviously didn’t mind. One week after winning the NNS race at Phoenix, Keselowski came back to earn the pole position for Saturday’s NNS race at Homestead.

Keselowski paced the field with a speed of 166.384 mph. It was his fifth NNS pole of the season and 19th of his career. Keselowski has five wins from the pole in that career, as well, including once at HMS.

“I honestly didn’t expect to get the pole,” Keselowski told Fox Sports 1. “My teammate, Ryan Blaney, was really fast the first two sessions.

“But we were able to just find a little extra speed, I got her dialed in and it’s going to be starting on the pole.”

Twice before, Penske Racing has earned the NNS pole at HMS and gone on to victory. Keselowski is gunning to make it three.

“I’d love to add a three to that, so hopefully we can get three wins,” Keselowski said.

Whether Keselowski or another driver wins the race, it will be historic: Saturday’s event will be the final race ever run under the Nationwide Series banner. The series will be rebranded to the Xfinity Series beginning in 2015.

Kyle Larson qualified second (166.353 mph), followed by Matt Kenseth (166.006), Elliott Sadler (165.827), Ryan Blaney (165.756), Kyle Busch (165.685), Brian Scott (165.269), Brendan Gaughan (165.158), Dylan Kwasniewski (164.870), Chris Buescher (164.224), Ryan Reed (163.969) and Josh Berry (162.660).

“We just missed it barely there at the end,” Larson said. “Hopefully, we can have a little better finish than we had last night. We came up just one spot short.”

Larson finished second to Darrell “Bubba” Wallace in Friday night’s Truck Series season finale.

There were a few surprises along the way, as well:

* Chase Elliott, who clinched the Nationwide Series championship last week at Phoenix, had issues with control on his Chevrolet, ultimately being unable to qualify any higher than 14th.

* Regan Smith, who had been Elliott’s chief chaser during the championship battle, also had issues, qualifying 15th. And Ty Dillon also had control issues, qualifying 21st.

Row 1: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson
Row 2: Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler
Row 3: Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch
Row 4: Brian Scott, Brendan Gaughan
Row 5: Dylan Kwasniewski, Chris Buescher
Row 6: Ryan Reed, Josh Berry
Row 7: Trevor Bayne, Chase Elliott
Row 8: Regan Smith, Corey Lajoie
Row 9: JJ Yeley, Mike Bliss
Row 10: Dakoda Armstrong, Jeremy Clements
Row 11: Ty Dillon, Blake Koch
Row 12: Landon Cassill, James Buescher
Row 13: Ross Chastain, John Wes Townley
Row 14: Eric McClure, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 15: David Starr, TJ Bell
Row 16: Paul Menard, Ryan Sieg
Row 17: Ryan Preece, Jeff Green
Row 18: Jake Crum, Tanner Berryhill
Row 19: Matt DiBenedetto, Kevin Lepage
Row 20: Milka Duno, Carlos Contreras

Did not qualify: Derrike Cope, Joey Gase, Ryan Ellis, Johnny Jackson, Martin Roy.

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500