Brad Keselowski fights back for career-best Sonoma showing

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

They didn’t get the caution flag they wanted, but in the end Team Penske and Brad Keselowski were still able to celebrate a hard-fought top five at Sonoma Raceway.

Keselowski benefitted from a differing tire strategy and climbed through the field in the closing laps to earn a third-place finish in Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 – Keselowski’s career-best result at the 1.990-mile Sonoma, California road course.

The day didn’t start easy for the Rochester Hills, Michigan native.

Coming off of his worst qualifying effort of the year, Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford rolled off 23rd for the start of the race. On the tight, challenging course, that meant that the 33-year-old faced a difficult uphill battle – both in surviving the opening climb through the track’s first mile and in rising through the field.

Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford sustained damage to his left-front splitter early in the going, but he soldiered on, rising and falling throughout the day like the rest of the field as a variety of pit strategies switched up the running order.

In the end, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s day came down to one fateful call from his crew chief.

No, not Paul Wolfe.

Brian Wilson.

With Wolfe out for the birth of his second child, Wilson sat atop the box for Keselowski. When the caution flag waved for the end of Stage 2 on Lap 51, Wilson brought his driver to pit road. Afterward, the No. 2 team elected to leave Keselowski on-track while the majority of the field came to the pits for their final stops as the race entered its final 40 laps.

Keselowski was just one of many to attempt the strategy, but he was the one who benefitted the most from it. The Michigander inherited the lead on Lap 72, and held the top spot for 17 circuits while Kevin Harvick and the other leaders chased him down.

By staying out, Keselowski’s crew was hopeful that a well-time caution flag would set the Michigander up for a run at the win. But the yellow flag never came, and Keselowski was forced to pit road shortly after losing the lead to Harvick on Lap 93 of 110.

By pitting Keselowski’s hopes for a victory were effectively dashed, but with fresh tires he was well suited to drive through the field in the final run to the finish.

In the end, that’s exactly what he did – rising up to third by the time the checkered flag flew.

Afterward, the former series champion applauded his crew and strategists.

“You have to be patient and have to believe in your team because you know they can see things you can’t and obviously they made they made the right call to stay out there long,” Keselowski said. “And when we decided to come in and get tires we were able to move up the field quickly. With a few lap more laps we could have gotten up to second.”

He wasn’t able to take home a trophy, but given everything he’d been through, third was a result the 33-year-old was happy to claim.

“The Freightliner Ford was really good today,” Keselowski said. “We didn’t have the qualifying fun we wanted. We had amazing race pace. That’s a credit to everyone at Team Penske. It felt really good.

“I just wish I could run this race again. I think I might have had better car than driver today, and I learned a lot. Just an amazing fun day.”

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