CONCORD, N.C. – Brad Keselowski finally checked winning the Coca-Cola 600 off his to-do list by holding off Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling overtime finish Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Keselowski, who had to start at the rear of the field after unapproved adjustments were made to the interior of his car following qualifying, wasn’t the fastest car for most of the night but pounced when the chips were down.
A spin by Joey Gase that brought out the caution flag coming to 52 laps to go set up what most believed were the final pit stops of the night, with Jimmie Johnson winning the race off pit lane and Keselowski coming off second to line up alongside Johnson for the ensuing restart.
Though Johnson was the control car, when the green flag waved with 47 laps left, it was Keselowski who got a better push from third-place Martin Truex Jr. that propelled him to the lead over Johnson.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott quickly dispatched the No. 48 to take over second, and then the second-generation driver set his sights on Keselowski’s leading Ford Mustang.
Lap after lap, Elliott ran the outside lane trying to keep his momentum up, while Keselowski stuck to the very inside of the 1.5-mile quad-oval in an effort to fend off any challenges from behind.
The strategy worked all the way until lap 363, when Elliott finally had enough momentum to pull alongside Keselowski off the second turn and side-draft the 2012 Cup champion for the top spot.
Elliott completed the pass in turns three and four and gradually pulled away to a lead of nearly two seconds over the ensuing 35 laps, and it appeared that the crown jewel that his Hall of Fame father Bill never won was finally going to go home to Dawsonville, Ga.
Then the ninth and final caution flag waved with two laps left, for a spin by William Byron in turn two, and Elliott’s chance at victory ultimately slipped away as a result.
The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE and his crew chief Alan Gustafson made the call to come down pit road, in a race where track position and clean air had proved key all night, while Keselowski, Johnson and six others stayed out to bury Elliott in traffic for an attempt at overtime.
That gave Keselowski control of the race back – control that he thought he had lost for good – and when the green flag waved at lap 404, he powered away from Johnson exiting turn two and drove home to his first NASCAR Cup Series win of the season and the 31st of his career.
After a smoky burnout that included Keselowski’s traditional hoisting of the American flag, he climbed out of his race car and marveled at a victory that ultimately fell back into his lap at the very end.
“Man, this win means a lot to me. … Memorial Day is a lot more about more than racing, but we’re able to do cool things like racing because of the freedom provided by those that are willing to make those sacrifices,” Keselowski noted. “I feel like I’ve thrown this race away a handful of times, and I thought we were going to lose it today. I know we’ve lost it (before) the way Chase lost it and that really stinks. Today, we finally won it that way. I’m so happy. I just wish my wife and daughters were here.
“It’s a major; it’s the Coke 600 and now there’s one major left for me: the Daytona 500,” added Keselowski. “We’re checking them off (one by one).”
After watching Alex Bowman win the first two stages and lead a race-high 164 laps, as well as his teammate Joey Logano top the third stage on a pit strategy call, Keselowski wasn’t sure if his time was going to come at all in NASCAR’s longest night.
But he kept digging deeper and deeper, and in the end, Keselowski’s perseverance ultimately prevailed.
“We might not have been the fastest car today, but man, did we just grind this one out,” Keselowski noted. “The pit crew at the end, the yellow right before the last (one), we had a blazing stop to get us up front (to second) and push us into position. All these things came together for us.
“I’m tickled to death and it’s a little overwhelming, to be honest.”
Johnson, who was seeking both his record-tying fifth Coca-Cola 600 win and the end of a 101-race winless drought, crossed the line .293 seconds back as the runner-up.
Elliott rallied from ninth to finish third on fresh tires over the final two-lap sprint, followed by Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.
Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., polesitter Kurt Busch, and rookies Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell completed the top 10.
The elder Busch, who earned the top spot on the grid by virtue of qualifying earlier Sunday, led the first 54 laps but fell back after being passed by Bowman and could never get back in contention after that.
Sunday’s race was interrupted 50 laps in by a rain delay of one hour, eight minutes and 35 seconds, which pushed the finish into the early minutes of Monday morning, the official Memorial Day holiday.
At 405 laps and 607.5 miles, it was the longest race by distance in NASCAR history.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.