DARLINGTON, S.C. — The moment for Brad Keselowski was fantastic. Winning an event he considers among NASCAR’s crown jewels, snapping a 29-race winless streak, and doing it when he thought his team had a fifth- to 10th-place car entering the race made the night special.
But after winning Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Keselowski was cautious about what the win signified for his team with one race left until the playoffs begin.
“There’s no tracks like this in the playoffs,” Keselowski said after his 25th career Cup victory. “And winning is great, but there’s not a lot of carryover here, and we still have a lot to work on and improve to be considered a favorite for the playoffs.
“I’m hopeful today is the catalyst to get that work done because it shows that when we do hit it, we’re capable of executing at the level needed to bring home trophies.”
Maybe Keselowski’s team will be the one break a trend among winners late in the regular season, but the odds are against them.
Since eliminations were added to the playoff format in 2014, no driver who won in either of the final two regular-season races went on to make it to the championship race in Miami.
Twice such winners finished as high as fifth in the points, including Keselowski in 2014 after his Richmond win in what was the regular-season finale that year. Twice such winners finished 15th in the standings.
This has not been an easy season for Keselowski and his Penske team. He is on pace for his fewest top-five finishes in the past three seasons. He would need to score a top-10 finish in more than 80 percent of the remaining races to match his total from last season. His victory Sunday was the third top-10 result in the last eight races.
“It’s been really frustrating because we haven’t had the speed we’ve had over the last few seasons, and then the races where I feel like we’ve had the speed, I feel like I completely screwed them up,” Keselowski said of how this season has challenged him.
“I felt like before today that we had the speed to win Daytona and Talladega, and that’s probably about it, and I messed both those races up. I made one bad move in the draft, got cycled back, and then the wreck happened. And then at both the Daytonas, I feel like I made the wrong move, one where I just was too nice to someone and another when I just didn’t anticipate somebody else’s bad move. I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating. And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.
“And so you hope it’s every week. You enter every weekend thinking that. Then you get to the race and it’s not there, and you’re like, oh, what if I never get another car capable of winning again. Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee.”
Crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted the team felt the pressure of not having won a points race this season before Sunday.
“It’s been a tough year,” Wolfe said. “Usually we’ve won a race by now, and you start to feel that season coming to an end, and yeah, we were kind of locked into the playoffs on points, but you know, most of us that I’m aware of on this team are here to win races. That’s why we do this. That’s why we get up every day and go to work is to win races, whether we’re in the playoffs or not. It’s all about winning races and contending for a championship.”
Keselowski said he hopes this win can lift his team heading into the playoffs.
“Moments like today are just so refreshing,” he said. “They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well, and this is a complete battery recharge for myself and for our team. It makes going to the racetrack fun knowing that you’ve won and you can win.”
A LOOK AT HOW DRIVERS WHO WON IN THE FINAL TWO RACES OF THE REGULAR SEASON FARED (SINCE ELIMINATIONS WERE ADDED TO THE PLAYOFFS IN 2014)
Race 25: Atlanta – Kasey Kahne (finished 15th in points)
Race 26: Richmond – Brad Keselowski (5th)
Race 25: Darlington – Carl Edwards (5th)
Race 26: Richmond – Matt Kenseth (15th)#
Race 25: Darlington – Martin Truex Jr. (11th)
Race 26: Richmond – Denny Hamlin (6th)
Race 25: Darlington – Denny Hamlin (6th)
Race 26: Richmond – Kyle Larson (8th)
# Suspended two playoff races for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville