Win No. 5 of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Maybe so, maybe so.
Driving it like you stole it?
Well, Brad Keselowski has this Grand Theft Auto strategy down pat. He stole another one Sunday, his second 'theft' in three NASCAR championship playoff races, using great gas mileage to upset Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin to win the Dover 400.
That victory, his fifth of the season, puts Keselowski atop the Sprint Cup standings, on a beautiful, warm, early autumn afternoon, with the title chase breaking wide open.
It might look like the playoff game is now down to a three-man chase, with Keselowski versus Johnson versus Hamlin....except that the next stop is always unpredictable Talladega.
Still, if Talladega doesn't surprise, then those three appear to be breaking open the chase just three races into the 10-race playoffs.
And, uh, the man who won Talladega in the spring? Brad Keselowski.
With two wins and a sixth at New Hampshire, Keselowski is averaging a red-hot 2.6 finish, including that opening win at Chicago when he outfoxed Johnson on the final round of pit stops.
This time Keselowski wasn't much of a factor until the final miles.
"We had a pretty good car, fifth or sixth all day, and then got up to fourth with that last stop," Keselowski said. "Then great fuel mileage, great strategy by my crew and crew chief Paul Wolfe, and great speed."
Keselowski made his final stop for fuel with 89 laps to go. Five of those laps, though, were run under yellow.
Brad Keselowski first at the finish line, well ahead of runnerup Jeff Gordon (red car in the middle, six lengths back) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Yes, it was a fuel mileage run to the end, as is not untypical here.
-- Kyle Busch, who dominated the race, had to pit for gas while leading with 10 miles to go, and he angrily left the track without comment. But on the radio on the cool-down lap he launched into an obscenity-laced outburst blaming Toyota's engineering department for costing him the win.
Busch, an hour after the race, tweeted "Plenty to talk about. Nobody was at my hauler. Changed clothes, talked to Dave (Rogers, his crew chief) and went to bus. Blame someone else!"
-- Denny Hamlin, Busch's teammate, had the second-fastest car during the 3-1/2-hour race. But he too had to pit late for more fuel, with nine laps to go, while leading.
-- Greg Biffle too fired off an blistering stream of invectives to his crew, via radio, when he had to pit under green for a loose tire. That, plus an untimely early caution, during a round of routine green flag stops, probably cost him any real shot at this championship. He came in 33 points down, with a strong car here in qualifying, and needing to take the game right at the three top men to get back in the hunt. Biffle wound up 16th.
That 'untimely caution' left only six drivers on the lead lap just 75 miles into the 400-miler. But as things played out that yellow flag controversy proved little more than academic.
Jeff Gordon might have been one of the most frustrated Sunday, though he had a great shot to win, finishing second and closing hard on Keselowski in the final miles.
"We're not going to win this championship against those guys, if they keep running like they're running," Gordon said.
Gordon crashed at Chicago two weeks ago when his throttle hung while he was running fourth. He rallied to finish third last weekend at Loudon, N.H. But even this second-place run didn't put him even close to being back in the hunt. He said he was at the moment "being realistic" and looking at fifth in the 12-man standings.
However Gordon wasn't alone in his frustrations.
-- Tony Stewart was far off the pace, lapped early, finished three miles down, 20th.
-- Matt Kenseth, Biffle's teammate, had an even worse day, when his rear-end suspension broke. Repairs didn't hold, and he failed to finish, scoring 35th. It was the third time in recent weeks that Kenseth has complained about mechanical issues.
-- The rest of the men in the playoffs didn't do much to improve their title chances. Kevin Harvick (13th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th) never got in the game here. Kasey Kahne did, but a loose lug nut forced him to make a late pit stop, dropping him to 15th. Clint Bowyer had a top-six car most of the day, but a late fuel stop cost him too (9th). Martin Truex Jr. was the only other chase player to pull off a decent finish, sixth, after a weak performance throughout the day.
Round Three, like Round One at Chicago, goes to Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
With about 20 laps to go it was pretty clear that Gordon could make it the rest of the way on gas, and that Busch and Hamlin would have to stop. It was not readily apparent, though, that Keselowski could make it, or Johnson.
Johnson kept backing off slower and slower to conserve fuel, and he made it without another stop, but he'd faded to fourth.
Keselowski, once he passed Johnson with maybe 15 miles to go, could start conserving too, only having to hold Gordon at bay.
Would it really work, though?
Crew chief Paul Wolfe knew...even if Keselowski himself wasn't sure.
When was Keselowski confident he had the right game plan to win?
"I never did," he said. "I'm listening to Paul's voice. I felt confident when I crossed the checkered flag."
"We heard (via radio) that Denny and Kyle were going to pit," Wolfe said.
"Jimmie, we knew they were close. But understanding what their pit sequence was throughout the race, we understood where they were at mileage?wise. We felt if we rode right with them...and once we got past Jimmie, we felt like then we could go into full save.
"I knew we were close, but I'm also confident in Brad's ability to save. We knew what number lap we had to go to full save to be able to make it.
"It might look a little risky, but there's definitely some thought and a process behind what we did. Definitely I was nervous. I don't know who wouldn't be. It's a big race, a big win. We saw the opportunity to go for it."
Roger Penske gets a champagne shower (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)