By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A bid for the historic 1100-mile sweep by Team Penske wasn’t meant to be. Epecially for Brad Keselowski, who finished 19th in Sunday’s 60th Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina after leading 76 of 400 laps.
Coming into the grueling 600-mile contest that was slowed down 15 times, Keselowski was the most recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner after winning at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago. Also coming into the race, Roger Penske’s three-car effort had the chance of becoming the first team to win both the 500 and 600 in the same year after Simon Pagenaud won the 103rd Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day.
Despite starting in 21st, Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Mustang came out to play and had a competitive car in the closing moments of the opening stage, taking the lead for the first time on Lap 81 after passing Daniel Hemric. His first stint at the front was short lived as Kevin Harvick took control nine laps later before Keselowski regained it back on Lap 95 and scored the opening stage win.
It appeared Keselowski was going to be the one to accomplish the sweep as he not only won the Stage 1, but backed up his strong performance in Stage 2, where he led throughout the run after opting not to pit during the stage caution. From Laps 134-189, Keselowski led 51 out of those 56 laps, the most time a driver spent out in front to that point.
A caution just before the halfway mark came out on Lap 189 for Ryan Preece’s Turn 1 crash due to a cut tire. Once pit road opened, Keselowski pitted for fresh tires and it paid off as he worked his way towards the front on the restart and passed Alex Bowman for the lead with just two laps remaining in the stage and gained an additional 10 stage points and another stage victory.
As the race transitioned into nighttime, Keselowski’s dominance waned drastically after dealing with a tire problem, setting him well outside the top-10 for much of Stage 3 and wasn’t a contender for the win any longer, winding up 14th after 300 laps.
The focus shifted on just escaping Charlotte with a decent shot of scoring a top-five, let alone win the 600 as the race favored Martin Truex, Jr., Chase Elliott, and his Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. With 50 laps to go, it appeared promising as he was running in fifth. That was until he made a scheduled pit stop and the caution came out on Lap 359 for Denny Hamlin, who spun in Turn 2.
Since he was the first car a lap down, he escape further trouble by getting the free pass and restarted 16th. Keselowski showed flashes of brilliance on a couple of restarts, working his way back in to the top-10. While running in seventh, a flat right rear tire, due to earlier wall contact, sent Keselowski around near the entrance of pit road, bringing out the final caution of the race.
The tire failure eliminated Keselowski from a shot at the sweep, and lost two laps to repair the damaged Ford. Not only that, Blaney had a loose wheel they had to fix, that meant Logano was the last one standing to bring Penske a victory, but came up one spot short as Truex scored his second 600-mile win.
Meanwhile, Keselowski ended up with an agonizing 19th place finish. The result also marked his third race he’s finished outside the top-10 in the last four races. He’ll enter the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway June 2 fifth in points (second in the playoff tally behind Kyle Busch), hoping he becomes the first four-time winner of 2019 and capture his second win at “The Tricky Triangle.”