By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
It isn’t every day that a driver climbs from his car in Victory Lane and thanks the people in the track’s infield care center, but Brad Keselowski did just that after winning Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway despite being sick all weekend.
Keselowski came down with the stomach flu Friday night at AMS and wound up losing six pounds in a 10-hour period. He ran only a few laps of practice on Saturday, with Xfinity Series teammate Austin Cindric doing most of the driving on Saturday.
He was treated at the care center on Saturday and made another trip Sunday morning, but once the race started, he appeared to be in good shape for racing.
“I wouldn’t have made this race if it had been yesterday,” he said. “I was nowhere near good enough. But thankfully, the team here at the care center helped me out. They pumped me with a couple IVs and got me as good as I could be for the race.”
Keselowski also thanked his wife, Paige, who also had the flu but still tended to her husband and their daughter, Scarlett, who somehow escaped the illness.
“That’s mom power right there,” he said. “So she’s kind of the rock star as far as I’m concerned.”
Keselowski’s victory was significant for other reasons. It was the first in Cup for the new Ford Mustang, and it was his 60th major win since joining Team Penske in 2010. That broke a tie with the late Mark Donohue for most wins by a Penske driver. Keselowski has won 33 Cup and 27 Xfinity races aboard Penske cars.
“I’m still in a little bit of a daze,” Keselowski said in his winner’s interview. “It was a long, tough race. … I think it’s certainly a really big day for us, one that I’ll reflect on for a long time.”
After starting 19th in Sunday’s race, Keselowski steadily worked his way forward, overcoming a problem with a jack on one pit stop and an overheating engine due to trash on the grille of his car. He got his biggest break on the race’s final caution period, which fell with 52 laps remaining and during a round of green-flag pit stops. Keselowski wound up being one of three drivers on the lead lap, thanks to being the free pass driver.
Once the green flag flew on Lap 283, Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano took the early lead, but Keselowski motored by him on Lap 293 as Logano was struggling with tire problems that led to an unscheduled green flag pit stop and relegated him to a 23rd-place finish.
From that point on, Keselowski’s biggest challenge came from eventual runner-up Martin Truex Jr., who closed to within a couple of car lengths at the finish. Kurt Busch took third place over Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
Keselowski said he wasn’t sure he could outrun Truex, who was looming large in his rear-view mirror in the closing laps.
“I saw him coming with three to go,” Keselowski said. “I thought: ‘Uh-oh, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hold him off.’
Truex maintained in his post-race interviews that the lapped car of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. cost him a shot at victory.
“The 17 [Stenhouse] rode there in front of us forever and ever, running the bottom, and I kept telling him I needed the bottom, and these cars are just so bad in dirty air that he was holding me up really bad,” Truex said. “Once I got around him, I got to the 2 car [Keselowski] in two laps. I just needed one more.”
The new lower horsepower/higher downforce rules seemed to help even the playing field at Atlanta, as several underdogs showed good speed during the race.
Rookie Ryan Preece and his teammate, Chris Buescher, ran among the top 10 for much of the race. Buescher finished ninth, but Preece was involved in a late crash on pit road, ending his strong run.
Preece said he looked down at his tachometer to be sure he wasn’t speeding and rear-ended the No. 52 of B.J. McLeod. The impact led to an injury to a member of Buescher’s crew. He was transported to a local hospital.
Another rookie, Daniel Hemric, had a top-five finish in sight until a late pit stop for a flat tire relegated him to a 20th-place finish.
“That is the kind of race cars we have to have at the race track every week to give ourselves a shot,” Hemric said. “It was fun to drive, fun to pass people, and I look forward to next week.”
Kyle Larson had one of the fastest cars in Sunday’s race, leading a race-high 142 laps, but he was unable to overcome a late penalty for speeding during a pit stop and wound up 12th.
PHOTO CAPTION: Brad Keselowki celebrates his win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the No. 2 Ford Mustang for Team Penske. Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR