Late caution clears the way for Brad Keselowski to win Coca-Cola 600
A late caution flag caused by a blown tire on the 24 car of Elliott’s teammate, William Byron, set up the Penske Ford/Miller Lite driver for victory in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the early hours of Monday morning.
Elliott, the Hendrick Motorsports/NAPA Auto Parts driver, led Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford by 1.6 seconds before a surprise caution came out on Lap 398 as William Byron spun out with a flat tire.
“That’s got to be a joke,” replied Elliott on his radio as the caution came out on the Byron spin. The caution and the call for Elliott to pit would cost Elliott a chance to make history in the Coca-Cola 600 and win the event, something Chase Elliott’s father, Bill, never did in his racing career.
Keselowski chalked up the win by staying out on old tires and holding off the field, including a hard charging Elliott after the pitstop. Although a winner on NASCAR’s premier circuit many times before, it was a feeling Keselowski just couldn’t let go of.
“It’s major. It’s the Coke 600,” replied Keselowski after the race. “That only leaves one major for me, the Daytona 500. We’re checking ‘em off. We may not have been the fastest car today, but, whoa, did we grind this one out. The pit crew on the yellow before the last had a blazing stop to get us up front.”
It was a night of firsts for Keselowski, Ford and the event itself. The Team Penske driver chalked up his first NASCAR Cup Series win of the year, his first Coca-Cola 600 win, his second win at Charlotte as well as the 31st win of his career.
The win by Keselowski was also Ford’s first win in the Coca-Cola 600 since Mark Martin visited Victory Lane in 2002.
“I feel like I’ve thrown this race away a couple of times, and I thought we were going to lose it today,” said Keselowski, who surrendered the lead to Elliott on Lap 363 and watched Elliott gradually pull away. “I know we’ve lost it the way Chase lost it, and that really stinks, and today we finally won it that way (by staying out).
Elliott originally finished third in the Memorial Day spectacular but a post race inspection by NASCAR stripped Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson of his best finish and disqualified Johnson from his second place finish, relegating him to a last place finish in the final results, moving Elliott up to finish second.
NASCAR Cup Series director Jay Fabian said that Johnson’s No. 48 car’s rear alignment failed in the Optical Scanning Station (OSS) portion of technical inspection after Sunday’s race. All other drivers who took the checkered flag behind Johnson were moved up one position in the finishing order. Johnson also forfeited the 11 stage points he had earned in Sunday’s event.
Johsnon’s crew chief Cliff Daniels speculated early Monday morning when the penalty was announced that something may have broken on the car and that the team would investigate. Fabian added that the 48 team had a right to appeal the penalty but did not go into how far out of tolerance the car was in post-race inspection.
“The 48 ran strong tonight all night. I hate it for them. They had a good car, performed well,” Fabian said. “But the allowance is built in for parts that move. There’s an allowance for that. But if parts break, you know, the number is the number. There is no real parameter outside of that. There’s parts in the past that have been designed to failure break. Certainly not suggesting that’s the case here. But that’s what’s gotten us to this hard line of this is a post‑race number and there is a fair tolerance from pre‑race numbers to post.”
Following the race and despite moving up one notch in the final finishing order, Elliott could only ponder what could have been.
“You just try to make the best decision you can,” Elliott said after the race. “Those guys are just going to do the opposite of whatever we do. That’s just a part of it. You make decisions and you live with them. It wasn’t the pit call, I think being on offense is fine. But like I said, those guys are going to do whatever’s the opposite of what you do.”
After the post race inspection and disqualification of Johnson and his Ally Bank Chevrolet from the second spot and replaced by Elliott in the final results, Ryan Blaney finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Truex and Kurt Busch. Tyler Reddick ran eighth, the best finish of the season for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, with Christopher Bell ninth and Chris Buescher rounding out the top 10.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, had a major issue before the race even got started. On the pace laps, two blocks of tungsten ballast fell out from underneath the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, forcing Hamlin to the pits to have the weight replaced.
Stewart-Haas driver Aric Almirola’s Smithfield Ford received damage from one of the tungsten blocks that came out from Hamlin’s car and despite some good runs at times during the night, the Smithfield Ford was forced from contention early on. Hamlin was forced to pit, have the blocks replaced and fell eight laps down, finishing 40th.
Post-race penalties are likely against Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing, given how serious an infraction NASCAR deems the failure to secure ballast. If of serious nature, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabeheart could be suspended for up to four races for the infraction.
A promising race start to the Coca-Cola 600 was bolstered by Ganassi Racing/Gearwrench Chevrolet driver Kurt Busch capturing the pole in pre-race qualifying but after the drop of the green flag to begin the event, the race was halted on lap 50 as the rains came and delayed the event for one hour, eight minutes and 35 seconds for track drying. Kurt Busch led the first 54 laps but lost the lead under caution for the rain and slipped back to 10th by the end of Stage 1.
It was a frustrating night for a number of drivers who ran exceptionally well during the event.
Stewart-Haas Ford driver Clint Bowyer broke a lower control arm in the front suspension and rocketed into the outside wall in Turn 1. The No. 14 Ford billowed smoke as Bowyer climbed out of the car and was clearly frustrated.
“I mean, we’re 100 laps into a 400-lap race, and to be out already — you talk about a helpless feeling. The guys worked really hard on the (car), but it just wasn’t meant to be. It knocked the wind out of me there.” Bowyer added that he was going to go somewhere and take his Hans device off and “find somewhere where I can find a cold beer. I’m out of here.”
Stage Winners included Alex Bowman in Stages One and Two with Penske Ford/Pennzoil driver Joey Logano taking the third stage win. Logano had a top ten car all night but a speeding penalty off pit road in Stage Four dropped Logano from ninth to nineteenth, eventually finishing 13th. Bowman led a race-high 164 laps with Martin Truex, Jr. leading with 87 laps. Brad Keselowski led for 21 laps.
Racing action resumes Monday night with the Xfinity Series followed by the Gander Outdoors Truck Series on Tuesday with a 500K race for the NASCAR Cup Series on Wednesday night before packing up and heading to Bristol Motor Speedway for the May 31st running of the Food City 500.
By Rod Mullins | Augusta Free Press
Coca-Cola 600 Top Ten
1. BRAD KESELOWSKI FORD
2. CHASE ELLIOTT CHEVY
3. RYAN BLANEY FORD
4. KYLE BUSCH TOYOTA
5. KEVIN HARVICK FORD
6. MARTIN TRUEX JR TOYOTA
7. KURT BUSCH CHEVY
8. TYLER REDDICK CHEVY
9. CHRISTOPHER BELL TOYOTA
10. CHRIS BUESCHER FORD