By Jenna Fryer
CONCORD, N.C.: Brad Keselowski snapped a 37-race winless streak Saturday night by chasing down Kasey Kahne in the closing laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The defending Sprint Cup Series champion, who failed to qualify for the Chase this year, grabbed his first win of the season and first since Sept. 30, 2012, at Dover, by passing Kahne with nine laps to go in his Penske Racing Ford.
Keselowski became the first non-Chase driver to win a Chase race since Jamie McMurray at Charlotte in 2010.
“I never give up. I didn’t qualify well. But I kept working my way forward. I knew we had a good car,” said Keselowski, who started 23rd.
The race changed dramatically with 27 laps remaining and Jimmie Johnson seemingly on his way to an easy victory. But a debris caution sent the leaders to pit road and ended Johnson’s march to a record seventh Charlotte win.
Hendrick teammates Kahne and Jeff Gordon took only two tires and raced off pit road first, while everyone else took four tires and lined up behind them. Johnson came out in third, and should have been in good shape on four fresh tires.
Instead, Johnson had a terrible re-start and fell back to seventh.
“There was a caution that shook things up,” Johnson shrugged.
Kahne pulled away with the rest of the leaders. Championship leader Matt Kenseth was in the mix for a moment, but Keselowski, sixth on the restart, got past him and took over second.
Keselowski then set his sights on Kahne once and for all. He had picked his way through traffic but getting past Kahne wasn’t easy — Keselowski needed several attempts before making it stick.
“I love hard racing and there are a handful of guys who can’t race hard and they freak out — he’s not one of them,” Keselowski said about Kahne. “He’s an excellent driver. He ran me hard but ran me clean and that is great racing. He did a hell of a job and deserves a lot of credit for it.”
Kahne finished second in a Chevrolet and was followed by the Toyota of Kenseth, who takes a four-point lead over Johnson into next week’s Chase race at Talladega.
“I’m happy we finished third,” said Kenseth, who was the lowest-qualifying Chase driver at 20th. “I was so far behind because I qualified so poorly and needed all night to get back up there. Then at the very end they gave me a shot to win and I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.”
Johnson wound up fourth and said he had trouble when he tried to push teammate Kahne on the restart.
“Evidently I was too close to him and in his way, and my car washed up a little bit,” Johnson said. “A couple of guys were able to get inside of me. I just lost track position at that point, which was unfortunate. Once I got rolling again I was fine, but I lost too much at that point.”
Kyle Larson made his Sprint Cup Series debut driving a Chip Ganassi Racing-prepared car. He was impressive early, driving from 21st inside the top-12, and he lingered there alongside Juan Pablo Montoya, the driver he’ll replace next season for Ganassi.
Larson eventually dropped to 16th, where he stayed until his engine lost a cylinder and eventually failed, sending him to the garage with 87 laps remaining.
“I had a lot of fun tonight,” said Larson, who finished 37th.
Larson looking to learn
Kyle Larson can’t be goaded into setting an unreasonable expectation for his Sprint Cup debut.
He knows what Jamie McMurray did in 2002, when he grabbed an improbable victory for Chip Ganassi Racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second career Cup start. But as Larson headed into Saturday’s race at Charlotte for his Cup debut, he wasn’t expecting a trip to Victory Lane.
“Yeah, Jamie won in his second race,” Larson said. “But this is only my first.”
“I just want to learn a lot and to finish in the top 20. To run 15th to 20th would be good for my first start,” Larson said. “I read a quote from Kurt Busch that he ran 18th in his first Cup race. I’d say that would be a good start.”
There’s been plenty of hype around the 21-year-old wunderkind even though he has yet to complete a full season in stock cars. His background is in sprint cars, and Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon have been raving about Larson for years.
It’s not unlike Joey Logano, who was lauded by NASCAR heavyweights long before he had the minimum age to compete at the national level. As Joe Gibbs Racing counted down the days to Logano’s 18th birthday, it became impossible for Logano to ever live up to the expectations.
After five seasons, Logano left Gibbs and moved to Penske Racing. Now 23 and in his first season with his new team, he finally qualified for his first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Larson hears the comparisons, but believes he’s in a better position than Logano.
“I feel less pressure because Joey was 18,” Larson said. “But I want to prove the doubters wrong. It makes me mad when they say they don’t want me to end up like Joey Logano. Well, Joey’s in the Chase. He won a race this year. He’s won a few Cup races. I think Joey’s done fine.”
Larson gets his chance to prove the doubters wrong with Chip Ganassi, who gave him a developmental deal. Since Ganassi competes in NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars, Larson might have had a chance to pick which path to take and with open wheel roots, IndyCar might have been the popular choice.
Instead, Larson chose NASCAR.
“I just think there are more opportunities in NASCAR,” he said. “The fan base is bigger, there is more money to be made. There’s just a lot more opportunity over here.”
Ganassi got Larson in a full-time Nationwide Series ride this year with Turner Scott Motorsports, and Larson entered Friday night’s race with 15 top-10 finishes and ranked ninth in the series standings. His development has moved along fast enough that Ganassi felt comfortable not renewing the contract for Juan Pablo Montoya at the end of the season and moving Larson up to Cup in the flagship No. 42 Target Chevrolet.