Jimmie Johnson dominated Saturday night's 500, but Brad Keselowski, with a fortunate break on a late caution, snaps a year-long winless streak (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It's been a long, tough season for Brad Keselowski, certainly not the season that the sport's defending champion expected after his rock'n'roll 2012 championship.
So when Keselowski finally got a shot late at the front Saturday night, he made the most of it, putting on a stirring duel with Kasey Kahne over the final 30 miles of the Charlotte 500 and winning for the first time this season.
While most of the 3-1/2-hour race was a snoozefest, with Jimmie Johnson and Kahne overwhelming their rivals, a late caution, for back stretch debris, turned the tables.
Johnson appeared well on his way to his sixth win of the year when that crucial yellow came out. The field pitted; most took four tires, but Kahne and Jeff Gordon took just two, to gain track position, the front row for the final restart.
Gordon faded but Kahne sprinted away...only to suddenly get a rear view mirror full of Keselowski.
Kahne and Keselowski went hard at each other for at least 10 laps, in the best action of the night.
Once Keselowski got the lead with nine laps to go, he had clean air and sailed off to victory.
Keselowski was downright jubilant afterwards, doing an enthusiastic burnout.
"Had some struggles tonight, but when I saw we were that close to the front..." Keselowski said.
"I love hard racing. But there are a bunch of guys in this sport you can't race hard, because they freak out. But not Kasey; that was great."
A beautiful night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capped by a furious finish between Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne. But the crowd was disappointingly off (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson dominated the night, but a late caution with 40 miles to go shook things up. Johnson restarted third but bobbled on that first lap.
"That last caution.....then I pushed Kasey up into turn one, and I guess I pushed him too hard, and I lost track position," Johnson said.
"Wish we'd finished better. But everything's there."
Johnson was set not only to win the race but also take the championship points lead from Matt Kenseth.
As it turned out, Kenseth finished just ahead of Johnson, to add a point to his slim lead, four points heading to Talladega for the wild card event of the playoffs.
Kenseth struggled the first half of the race but recovered to take a solid finish: "I couldn't see first place (Johnson) or second place (Kahne) just before that last caution, so I don't think I could have run them down.
"We were off the first two or three runs, and I couldn't stand it. And I was so far behind because I qualified poorly. It was more of a struggle this weekend than we expected. We started working up through the field, but there were such long stretches of green that they got way ahead of me.
"But then at the end we got a shot to win... and I'm really not happy I didn't take advantage of that. I couldn't believe they could give me a shot to win like that. I really thought I could get around Kasey."
A long time coming for Brad Keselowski...and too late to make a difference in this year's championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kahne finally had a great night, and after a bad six-race stretch that has taken him out of the title hunt he was rather pleased:
"We were on two (fresh) tires at the end, and Brad was on four, and he could outmaneuver me," Kahne said.
"I actually started reeling him back in, but with two to go I brushed the wall up in turn four.
"But it was a pretty good night for us...considering the last four weeks.
"When he got the lead, I got back by him. I kept looking for speed up high, but then he moved up there too. We kept playing the air game. Brad ran a really smart race."
It was a great night for Rick Hendrick's guys, right up till the end. At one stretch his four men -- Kahne, Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- were running 1-2-3-4.
And Kahne, Johnson and Gordon each had a shot to win in the final minutes. But Earnhardt had faded.
"The car was really good at the start of the race, had a top-five car, but then something happened the last half of the race and car just wouldn't turn," a disappointed Earnhardt said.
Gordon started from the pole but faded in the final stretch. "It certainly helps to be out front," Gordon said. "The call to take two tires at the end was good. But then the car got tight, and we were lucky to finish seventh."
A late caution foiled a dominant Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)