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Brad Keselowski makes it 2-in-a-row at Bristol, edging Matt Kenseth on a crash-marred afternoon

   Two in a row at Bristol: "This is a place where you have to earn it," Brad Keselowski says (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   An early crash took out Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, then a late race bump between teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon took Gordon out of contention, and at the end Brad Keselowski out-sprinted Matt Kenseth in a 16-lap duel to win Sunday's Food City 500, under bright, sunny skies.
   So it's two straight here, at one of the toughest tracks in the sport, for the 28-year-old...who says he was quite impressed the first time he saw this place, back in 1995, when he sneaked in to watch through a hole in the fence. "I hope they've made up for that lost ticket revenue since," Keselowski said with a laugh.
   And this time Keselowski didn't have to listen to any complaints, like he did last August for out-tricking some rivals on pit road. This time Keselowski flat kicked butt. Even-steven down the stretch against the always dangerous Kenseth...and also outrunning rivals on even fresher tires.


After a rainy morning, the weather broke, and it was warm and sunny the rest of the day (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    The crowd might not have been a sellout, and the garage didn't fill up with two dozen destroyed race cars. And there weren't even many, if any, temper-tantrums. But Keselowski said there was more than enough excitement from his point of view.
    "Now I know I'm biased, but this was one of the best Bristol races I've ever seen," he says. "Short of a 30-car wreck every week, I don't know what more you could expect -- good side by side racing, and a lot of bumping.
   "Those who don't like the new Bristol are missing out on something great. At some point you have to accept the world has changed over the last five years."
    After the two major crashes, the race appeared to boil down to Keselowski and Kenseth. And Keselowski, though he had a very stout car, said he was worried: "Matt Kenseth is the best long runner in NASCAR, and I was not confident I could win, facing a long run with him right behind me."
   Kenseth could stay almost even with Keselowski but couldn't get a run on him or catch traffic to play it.
    "I couldn'’t run on the bottom, and Brad was really strong on the bottom of one and two," Kenseth said. "Most cars, as they get 20 or 30 laps on their tires, all run fairly high. Brad, if he wanted to, could run right across the apron in one and two.
    "He'd run the top of three and four and we would break even.
    "I was thinking I could run outside of him. But he would roll through there so fast you could never get a run on him."
    And Keselowski won by four lengths.
    But perhaps the biggest story of the day was the surprising performance by Michael Waltrip's three Toyota teams: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers finished 3-4-5 right behind Keselowski and Kenseth.

    The Waltrip story, particularly the stirring charge by Vickers, on a comeback, and without a full-time ride, stands in sharp contrast to the afternoon that Joe Gibbs' three Toyota teams had. Busch, out early. Denny Hamlin, pit road problems, 20th. And Joey Logano struggled too, 16th.
    And the Waltrip surge would appear to bear out the dramatic changes Waltrip and team owner Rob Kauffman made during the off-season, hiring Scott Miller to be competition director, and hiring Bowyer.
    Vickers, idled at the end of 2011 when Red Bull pulled out of the sport, was a late addition to Waltrip's roster, only last week getting a six-race deal, as teammate with Mark Martin. And Vickers charged to the front quickly, leading 125 laps, half the first half of the three-hour race. He remained in contention the rest of the way, though his late battling with Bowyer may have hurt both men in bids to catch Kenseth and Keselowski.


    This doesn't look pretty. Kasey Kahne (5) misjudged a pass, and that bobble cost Kyle Busch (18), Kevin Harvick (29), Marcos Ambrose (9) and Carl Edwards (99) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "Bringing in Scott Miller was a big key," Truex said. "And Toyota has had a big hand in our direction.
   "We kind of (re)started from scratch almost, and it's been a constant evolution. A lot of things went on (late) last year, and it's continued. We've got three cars that go to the track every week strong, and we're all feeding off each other."
   Vickers? "Obviously it says a lot about the cars," Truex says. "Brian is a good driver, and I was all in favor of him coming in. Plus Rodney (Childers, crew chief) has good cars here, so I was not surprised at Brian running up front all day."

   The race, briefly in some doubt because of early morning rain, was only minutes old when Kasey Kahne triggered the day's first melee.
   Kahne, off to a lousy start this season, with a series of crashing and poor finishes, had one of the fastest cars here and was trying to pass Regan Smith on the front stretch on lap 27. Kahne's spotter 'cleared' him, and Kahne tried to move up in front of Smith, only to realize suddenly that he wasn't clear after all.
   The pileup took Busch and Edwards, two race favorites, out of the game, along with Marcos Ambrose, and left Kevin Harvick with a damaged car.


Brad Keselowski, comfortably ahead at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "I was the fastest car here…we were going forward, taking our time," Kahne said.
   "Regan was pretty slow; I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center (of the corner), I just took off…and he was there on exit.
   "I've had awesome cars…and nothing to show for it."
   Smith wasn't pleased, though he managed to keep going. "He came up on me and I didn't have any place to go," Smith said. "He might have thought he cleared me, but he didn't. It was costly for us as it was for many other teams."
    "I think Regan was battling with that same thing we all battle with here -- should you let the guy go or keep racing him," Edwards said.
   "Kasey probably thought he was clear and that ended up in a wreck.
   "It is hard to put 43 cars on a half-mile going this fast and not wreck."

   While Jimmie Johnson, Kahne's teammate, slipped through the mess unscathed, he never really mounted a strong run. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the other two teammates in the Rich Hendrick camp, did get closer to the front, but they brushed each other while battling for fifth, and Gordon cut a tire and slammed the wall. Earnhardt, who took blame for the brush, slipped back to finish 15th.


Jeff Gordon (24) had a car that was a contender....but a brush with Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved costly (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    "I think we bumped more than we should have," Gordon said dryly. "We definitely didn't hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left-rear immediately. We didn't hit that hard.
    "I know that it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day. There were times we had the best car out there."

   One curious point of rule during the race came during a late restart, leader Keselowski on the inside, Kenseth on the outside. With Keselowski's victory, the issue became academic; however TV cameras clearly showed Kenseth beating Keselowski to the starting line, if only by less than a foot.
    NASCAR made no call on the apparent infraction. A black flag is usually the penalty for such a move, since no one is supposed to beat the leader to the starting line.
   However Kenseth said Keselowski was playing games on the restart, and Kenseth insisted his move was okay, since Keselowski had gone past the restart marks without accelerating.
    "I knew it was close," Kenseth conceded. "But here is the thing: When you get to the second line, they say that the race is on.
    "I knew we took off a little early -- quarter-throttle. And I am waiting for him. NASCAR has the data, so they can look at it which is kinda cool.
    "I didn't even floor it until we got to the start-finish line. I don't know if he was trying to let me beat him on purpose, or what was going on.
    "I was half-throttle for probably five car lengths. Finally I had to go or Martin or whoever was behind me was going to drive around me.
     "I was way past that second line, and we still weren't wide open. I think he was just playing a little game, trying to get me out there so I had to drill the brakes and brake-check everybody, and go right by me.
    "I just watched him and tried to get to the line just barely behind him."
   Keselowski says no harm, no foul.
   "I knew it was close," Keselowski said. "The guy restarting second has a pretty substantial advantage if he wants to. And it's such a balls and strikes call.
   "Those two marks on the wall, man, it's hard to tell.
   "In those cases a no-call is the right call.
   "There has to be some leniency. NASCAR has been cool enough about it to let it go."

Brad Keselowski in the closing miles, chased by Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The action on the track was, again, somewhat curious, as it has been ever since the track was redesigned from a one-groove layout to a layout that has two full, wide grooves, for side-by-side racing.
   Indeed there was considerably side-by-side racing. However Bristol's reputation for slam-bang, push 'em out of the way action has taken a hit.
   How much of a factor that might have been in the size of the crowd – estimated by NASCAR at 102,000 – is not clear, considering the many other aggravating factors, like the unemployment rate, the expense of spending a weekend in the area, and the price of gas.
   One of the day's surprises was Greg Biffle, who started from the pole but was never a contender. "We were back and forth….but there at the end I don't know what happened, it was just way, way too tight, and we were plowing down on the splitter," Biffle, 13th, said.
   One of the day's other disappointed was Tony Stewart, who ran fairly well but then got tangled up with Brendan Gaughan and brushed the wall.

   No, it's not a Modified. And it probably wouldn't pass any NASCAR inspection. But Kyle Busch, after repairs, did manage to run enough laps to gain six spots. But he wasn't in much of a talking mood after the race. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

What was Childress thinking

What was Childress thinking putting Gaughan in for 5 races? I'm sure RCR is eagerly waiting for the 5th race to be over! Seems to me Gaughan's hit everything but the sweeper truck!

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