DARLINGTON, S.C. – Sometimes it’s better to be fortunate than fast, and the good fortune of a perfect final pit stop propelled Brad Keselowski to his first Bojangles’ Southern 500 victory on Sunday night at Darlington Raceway.
Keselowski, who ran among the top 10 for much of the night but had to watch as Kyle Larson swept the first two stages and led a commanding 284 of 367 laps, was able to beat Larson off pit road during the final round of pit stops with 22 to go.
The margin between Keselowski and Larson at the pit exit line was no more than a couple of inches, but it proved to be the ultimate difference-maker.
Those few inches allowed Keselowski to be the control car for the night’s final restart with 19 laps left, and he took off from the bottom lane like a rocketship when the green flag waved, clearing Larson by the time the field reached turn one and using clean air to drive off into the South Carolina night.
Keselowski, who didn’t even take the lead for the first time until lap 259, then led the final 22 laps uncontested and beat runner-up and Team Penske teammate to the finish line by 1.224 seconds.
After a celebratory burnout and huge celebration on the frontstretch, including climbing on top of his No. 2 Miller Genuine Draft Ford and fist-pumping for the crowd, Keselowski thanked his pit crew for their part in his late charge to victory.
“Man, I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my pit crew. We were running second and that last stop they nailed it and got us out in the lead,” noted Keselowski. “I thought Kyle (Larson) was really good, and he was flat-out flying, but I know how it goes. In 2015, we led a bunch of laps and lost it on the last pit stop … and today my team won it on the last pit stop.
“When the green flag came out the last time, it was just about me hitting all my marks and not screwing it up.” Keselowski continued. “This is so cool. The Southern 500 has always been a major deal and I give a lot of credit to the whole team running the track here at Darlington. They’ve made it even bigger yet.”
Sunday’s win was the 25th of Keselowski’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, his first of the season and his first crown jewel victory in 10 years of competition at NASCAR’s top level.
In victory lane, he called it the biggest moment of his career to-date.
“It has to be,” Keselowski said. “There are only a few races in NASCAR that rank up there as the premier wins in our sport, and Darlington … the Southern 500 is one of them. To check this one off means a ton and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
At the end of the second stage, differing pit strategies meant that only Larson, Keselowski and Logano were on the lead lap when the green-checkered flag waved. Following their pit stops, eight drivers cycled through and were in contention when the final stage kicked off on lap 208.
Even still, Larson was the dominant force until a series of incidents inside the final 60 laps broke up the green-flag rhythm in the closing stages.
It began with 56 laps to go, when Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman tangled in a huge crash after Newman tried to duck to pit road and Bowyer slammed into Newman’s slowing Chevrolet with nowhere to go, and continued with 39 laps left when debris in turn two forced another slowdown.
The turning point, however, was the final caution with 24 to go when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun in turn two.
That was the point that the leaders came down pit lane for the last time, with Keselowski, Larson and Logano exiting three-wide and all separated by a fender each in their battle for the top spot.
Keselowski won out and went on to victory, while Logano eventually charged past Larson for second with 15 to go.
Larson settled for third, but a solid finish was no solace after such a dominant performance.
“It stings, for sure, to not win at a prestigious race like this,” said Larson. “I want to win every race, but I want to win a Southern 500 really bad. It would have been cool to win that, but at the same time, to bring a car to the race track like we did this weekend is something to be proud of and a big confidence-booster going into the next 11 weeks.
“I knew the only really weakness we would have throughout the race was a short run, and that’s what it came down to,” Larson added. On long runs, I was just really, really good all race long. … We had the dominant car and we proved it. We just came up a little bit short.”
Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott filled out the top five, followed by Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin.
To view full results from the race, advance to the next page.