By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Despite sustaining damage in an early wreck, and despite leading only one lap in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Brad Keselowski nailed down an opportunistic overtime victory in the 10th event of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
Surging to the front on the final lap, after fellow Ford driver Matt DiBenedetto abandoned the bottom lane and gave Keselowski a clear run to the front, Keselowski claimed his first victory of the season, the 35th of his career and his sixth at Talladega, tying Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second-most all-time at the 2.66-mile track.
As the ninth different winner this season, Keselowski joined Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney on the 2021 victory list.
Keselowski said he thought “Merry Christmas!” to himself when the bottom lane opened up on the final lap.
“The whole race, I had a couple of opportunities to take the lead, but I just kept thinking, ‘Man, just keep your car in one piece till the end.’ We’ve been so close here, and it just didn’t seem to want to come together here the last few years, and I’ve been on kind of a four-year drought here, but it’s nice to get number six.
“I would have never dreamed I’d tie Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. here. That’s something. Those guys are really legends. I’m just really proud of my team. We had an accident there early, and they recovered and got it fixed up to where I could keep running. My crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, had a lot of confidence.
“I told him (before pitting on Lap 173 of a scheduled 188), ‘I want to come in and put four tires on this thing,’ and he said, ‘Yep, go ahead.’ And that really helped a bunch at the end.”
William Byron ran second, extending his streak of top-10 finishes to eight races. Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell was third, followed by Kevin Harvick and DiBenedetto. Kaz Grala, Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Cole Custer completed the top 10.
DiBenedetto held the lead at the white flag in overtime, which took the race three laps beyond its posted distance. But the driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford moved up the track – uncovering Keselowski behind him — to block a run by Blaney. Keselowski used a strong push from McDowell to charge to the lead.
“Our day will come,” DiBenedetto said ruefully of the lost opportunity. “We’ll get there… It’s just so circumstantial—our day will come.”
Joey Logano had a much shorter day on track than his winning Team Penske teammate. As the lead pack of cars approached the green/checkered flag to end the first 60-lap stage of the race, an aggressive push from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. forced Denny Hamlin out of line. In the process, Hamlin hooked the left rear of Logano’s car, which got airborne off the bumper of Stenhouse’s Chevrolet, turned upside-down, landing on its roof and barrel-rolled before righting itself. Keselowski’s car also sustained minor damage in the incident.
When Logano’s car bounced on its roof, his head hit the roll bar.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” Logano said after a mandatory visit to the infield care center. “Denny is trying to go and the 47 (Stenhouse) is trying to go. It’s a product of this racing. We have to fix it, though… At the same time, I’m appreciative of driving a car that is this safe and what Team Penske has done for the safety of these cars so that I can live to talk about it and go again.
“I got lucky that I didn’t get hit while I was in the air.”
The end of the second stage also produced fireworks, and once again, Hamlin was at the center of the maelstrom. As the top lane accordioned behind Keselowski, who was running second at the time, Martin Truex Jr. tapped Hamlin from behind, turning the No. 11 Toyota into the wall.
Truex then spun sideways, sustaining damage. Behind him, Byron steered down the track to the avoid the wreck and collected Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott in a chain-reaction collision. Bowman couldn’t get his car repaired in the requisite six minutes and fell out of the race in 38th place.
Series points leader Hamlin, who led a race-high 43 laps, finished 32nd, three laps down.
Elliott, the reigning series champion, was able to continue and finished 24th. Harrison Burton came home 20th in his NASCAR Cup Series debut.