By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
For about 96% of the United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway, Brad Keselowski appeared to be well on his way to his second top-10 of the season. While the official results will show the driver and co-owner of RFK Racing with an 18th-place outing, it’s in no way indicative of the former champion’s performance in the desert.
Keselowski began his relatively successful weekend in Arizona by setting the sixth-fastest time in practice, which translated to a season-best qualifying effort of fourth at the one-mile track in the final stop of the NASCAR Cup Series’ ‘West Coast Swing.’
Once the green flag waved, it looked like the driver of the No. 6 set his Ford Mustang to cruise control for a 500 kilometer drive down Interstate 10. To be fair, had the race at Phoenix gone its scheduled 312-lap distance, Keselowski and crew chief Matt McCall would’ve calculated a near-perfect end to their road trip.
Instead, a spin by Harrison Burton with 10 to go added a five-mile detour and an important decision to be made. Sitting seventh at the time of caution, Keselowski followed the leaders down pit road, where McCall ordered a four-tire stop to his Castrol Edge-dressed crew.
While first-place car during the yellow, Kevin Harvick, and crew chief Rodney Childers made the same call, it proved to be the incorrect one, as many others opted for track position with two-tire stops, including race-winner William Byron.
Mired back around 20th when the final-two restarts took place, Keselowski had to settle for 18th in a race where his average running position was sixth.
Frustrating end to a solid day @ Phoenix.
Still trying to understand what happened on next to last restart to cost us 10 spots.
Proud to have more speed. We need just a tad more speed to win and I need to execute better with it. Looking forward to seeing it all come together.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) March 13, 2023
At any rate, it was an incredibly successful outing for the No. 6 crew, who’ve shown speed all season and can make a case as being one of the fastest Ford teams in the sport.
Although Keselowski only led one lap in Phoenix courtesy of a late pit stop during a green-flag cycle in Stage Two, it was enough to keep an important streak alive. Through four races, the 2012 Champion is the only driver to lead laps in every regular-season event this year; it’s also the first time he’s led in four consecutive races going back to 2021.
Additionally, in earning nine stage points at Phoenix, Keselowski is only 1-of-3 drivers (Byron, Harvick) to score stage points in all five possible races with a segment win at Daytona International Speedway and 31 total points, which are tied for sixth most.
Leaving Phoenix, Keselowski already positioned himself better in the standings through four races compared to last year. However, he got a gift in the form of 100-point penalties issued to the teams of Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and William Byron for tampering with louvers, and a 25-point penalty handed to Denny Hamlin for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the final lap in Arizona.
Thus, Keselowski improved four spots to ninth in the standings, carrying a head of steam into another track where he figures to be a strong contender: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The 39-year-old actually has two wins at the 1.54-mile track under his belt, but under much different conditions. Last year, the Georgia-based track debuted a slick new repave, which provided a superspeedway-styled racing – something that heavily favors Keselowski.
He leads all active drivers as a seven-time winner on superspeedways, which also ranks him tied for fifth-most all-time in NASCAR history at the high-speed tracks. Last year, Keselowski finished 12th and 18th respectively at “new” Atlanta with stage points earned in both races.
Keselowski looks to keep momentum rolling by snapping a 66-race winless streak, while keeping his 2023 stage points and lap-leading records alive in the Ambetter Health 400 on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on Fox.