Brad Keselowski’s win last Sunday at Talladega clinched him a playoff spot, settling his team’s top priority during the regular season. In doing so, it provided an opportunity for a mental reset, an altering of focus, for a year marred by empty performances, misguided strategy and subpar results based on statistical expectation.
And regardless of whatever comes next, his restarts should supply a source of strength.
Separating the signal from the noise
A fiery crash with a corporate teammate and unconventional pit strategy at Richmond stand out as the most obvious lowlights of a strange season for Keselowski.
The crash with fellow Team Penske driver Joey Logano came on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and while the culmination of aggressive and ill-advised driving between two hardheaded champions wasn’t an ideal way to end that race, it’s understandable how it came to fruition. Considering the same two drivers clashed a year prior in one of Daytona’s preliminary races, it probably surprised no one when it happened again with points, a coveted trophy and the year’s richest purse on the line.
Ultimately, the drama exceeded the real magnitude of a problem Roger Penske himself sought to squash last week, one with no bearing on Keselowski’s performance or effort.
At Richmond, Keselowski went from fourth to first to 16th across the race’s second green-flag pit cycle, a natural stopping point for fresh tires which crew chief Jeremy Bullins elected to ignore. It was a statistically egregious gambit in the moment, something Bullins admitted afterwards “didn’t (work) in a big way.”
Keselowski’s deep starting position at Richmond (20th) may have informed Bullins’ bid, and to be fair, a long-pitting tactic on a track that saw 1.5 seconds worth of tire degradation somehow worked in his favor, thanks to a Ryan Newman spin prompting a caution flag that abruptly ended the day’s first green-flag pit cycle. As a result, Keselowski was moved from eighth to first.
When Bullins doubled down on this later in the second stage, it amounted to an unnecessary additional gamble; however, the biggest issue with the strategy was not that Bullins utilized it, but that he felt he had to do it.
Keselowski’s car was slow relative to those running near the front of Richmond’s field. His fastest lap ranked 11th among the best laps for each driver, symbolizing a brand of top-end speed most likely incapable of winning and representing a steep drop from the car he had in his 2020 win at the same track, a car so strong Keselowski publicly pleaded with Bullins to save it until the season finale in Phoenix.
The team that had the third-fastest car across all 750-horsepower tracks in 2020, a successful result of a grand organizational design, ranks ninth through five such races this season, potentially due to the rise of Joe Gibbs Racing (ranking first, second and fifth with Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell) and the coming to prominence of Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron (ranked fourth).
It’s a sizable drop, but it shouldn’t render them incapable of winning, assuming they don’t panic and deploy the kind of strategy we saw from them in Richmond. The lack of front-running speed on the tracks most influential in deciding NASCAR’s champion is the underlying problem for Keselowski and company; reactionary strategy only compounds the issue.
Restarts represent Keselowski’s constant strength
In a quarter of a season featuring bad observable crashes, a high crash tally — nine total, the most in the Cup Series — and poor strategy-based output, Keselowski’s restarts were integral in holding the season together.
His performance on restarts in Las Vegas served as his season’s pinnacle — a +17 net gain from within the top 14 positions that didn’t include his 17th-to-eighth journey on laps 185-186 — and created a podium unto himself among all drivers on all restarts dating back to 2017:
Your eyes do not deceive you: @keselowski is the owner of the three biggest single-race net gains from restarts since 2017.
— Motorsports Analytics (@MosporAnalytics) March 12, 2021
But one race isn’t a saving grace; Keselowski ranks first in positions gained (+26) on restarts at choose-rule racetracks and in position retention rate (78.38%) among drivers with 10 or more attempts from inside the top 14.
Across the last three races on 750-horsepower tracks, all facilities with playoff representation, he loaded up on preferred groove spots via the choose rule and executed to a series-best ability. To wit, his position retention at Phoenix was perfect, highlighted by a wild initial start that saw him drive deep onto the dogleg’s apron, nearly grazing the inside retaining wall:
At Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond, Keselowski scored a perfect retention rate from restart spots containing probabilities for retention higher than 60%. From “toss-up spots,” ranging from 50% to 60% in probability, he retained four times out of seven, a 57% rate. In all, he netted 10 positions, half from tracks offering lower ceilings then usual for positional gains on restarts.
Clearly, this is a good run of form translatable to the playoffs, a source of strength that can be relied upon if all else fails or used as a springboard if all that fails has been corrected. In the short term, this skill could help fashion his second and third quarters of the season into periods more becoming a driver with a track position profile heading in a good direction as he nears his statistical peak.
This weekend’s race in Kansas offers a good starting point. A 550-horsepower track, the 1.5-miler falls into the category that’s best suited Keselowski so far in 2021 — the team ranks second in median speed with this rules package — and hosts a race where track position is tough to come by, normalizing frenzied restarts.
It benefits Keselowski that Kansas is the site of his best single-race restarting performance of the last five years. It’d further behoove him if Sunday’s race ended shortly after a late-race restart. It’s no coincidence that his first win of the season came as a result of an overtime restart; his average finish splits between races without late-race restarts and those with at least one (in which he was an active participant) are 11.3 and 8.7, respectively. Nine of his last 12 Cup Series race victories, dating back to 2017, were in races containing late restarts.
This reliable restarting acumen carried him through the early part of the 2021 season. It could act as a cornerstone for a championship charge.