Synergy surrounds Keselowski’s third consecutive podium finish

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

MADISON, Ill. – When Brad Keselowski climbed out of his No. 6 Ford Mustang Dark Horse on pit road at the conclusion of the Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway, there was an interesting synergy surrounding his third consecutive podium finish and the events that unfolded in the closing laps.

Keselowski, now 40 years old and driver-owner for RFK Racing, took on some semblance of his former self after masterfully executing a strategy-heavy race, which left many other drivers heartbroken and frustrated. 

Before making the transition to RFK, Keselowski and his Team Penske No. 2 crew established a winning reputation for closing out races where themes such as fuel and tire conservation played a prominent role. 

Just like old times, the Penske No. 2 wound up in victory lane, albeit with 2022 Daytona 500 Champion Austin Cindric. However, a top-three outing in what was a 240-lap gauntlet proved Keselowski hasn’t lost his touch in overcoming wars of attrition.

Taking the green flag from seventh, Keselowski was met with early adversity in the form of loose wheel on his first pit stop of the day. After nursing his car around the 1.25-mile track without succumbing to any damage, the team tightened all four lugs and he slotted into 33rd on Lap 23.

Unable to make up 20-plus positions in the 45-lap opening stage to rack up extra points, Keselowski made a gradual climb throughout the field, on the track and in the pits, at a place where passing is notoriously difficult. By the end of the second segment, he worked his way up to fifth with a chance to win his second race in three starts.

With 46 to go, Keselowski assumed the lead, but both crew chief Matt McCall and spotter T.J. Majors called him down pit road for his final service. The driver-owner pleaded his case to stay out, and led 17 laps before surrendering first-place with 30 to go.

Evidently, Keselowski’s call to stay out was the right one, as the team’s initial decision to pit would’ve put them on the same cycle as Tyler Reddick (fourth), Christopher Bell (seventh) and Ross Chastain (12th), all of who finished behind him.

Surging on fresh tires, Keselowski managed to finish third by less than half-a-second to Denny Hamlin. Both drivers earned their series-best seventh top-five at Gateway, breaking away from a four-way tie with William Byron and Kyle Larson.

“We just were in position and I’m proud of that,” Keselowski said. “Real proud of that. Wish we could’ve got the 11 (but) I needed a couple more laps to run him down. We made good calls on pit road today. We got behind early, fell to the back, and this is not a forgiving track. To be able to get back up into the top-three is a testament to our team.”

Back to the aforementioned synergy, Keselowski’s fatherly instincts kicked in immediately following his gutsy performance after a display of conflicting emotions in relation to two drivers from the Brad Keselowski Racing pipeline.

Cole Cusumano | KTT

Ryan Blaney was moments away from his first victory since last October at Martinsville Speedway after leading 17 of the closing laps. And then, he ran out of fuel crossing the start-finish line as the white flag was displayed.

Blaney positioned himself ahead of his teammate Cindric by pitting one lap earlier on Lap 175. Unaware he was low on fuel, he burned a whole lot of it trying to lap cars, as well as during a heated battle for the lead with Bell, who faded with an engine issue directly after taking the lead with 19 to go. 

Able to avoid a third-straight DNF, a 24th-place finish on the lead lap wasn’t much of a consolation for Blaney when he was in position to finish runner-up at worst. He remains 12th in the standings with 11 races until the postseason. 

As soon as the race ended, Keselowski parked his car on pit road right behind the No. 12, undid his harness, hastily climbed out the driver’s side window and rushed to console his former driver and teammate in what was a heart-warming scene.

“He just said, ‘Good job. There’s nothing you can do about that,’ and just gave me a little pat,” Blaney said. “Words of encouragement by the old boss and teammate.”

“Gosh, (Cindric) was fast today. I don’t know if I would’ve passed him if we didn’t jump on that pit stop. That was all I had just to keep up with him before that pit stop. They were great. He did a good job. 

“Happy for that team,” Blaney added. “I mean, obviously bummed for us. The shots just keep coming this past month, but hopefully it straightens itself out. Proud of the effort, (but) have to figure out what happened there. Proud as a whole for Team Penske today.”

Following his moment with Blaney, Keselowski walked back to his car to fulfill media obligations, but first turned around and gave the successor of his No. 2 a congratulatory wave on his victory lap as he drove by.

After starting from the front row, Cindric maintained his place near the top of the leaderboard for a majority of the race, leading 53 laps (his most in a single race) and capitalizing on the misfortunes of his teammate.

Much like Blaney, Keselowski is the one who gave Cindric his first shot at racing in NASCAR, when he made his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut in 2015. 

In addition to both drivers winning races for BKR, Blaney is a Cup champion, while Cindric is a Daytona 500 Champion – and now multi-race winner at NASCAR’s top level.

Sure, Cindric is the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric and Blaney may be a third-generation racer, but Keselowski is the one who gave both drivers a shot at racing in NASCAR. Without him, who knows if the young teammates would have accomplished what they have today.

“I think a lot of (Keselowski),” Cindric said. “Whether that’s as a teammate, as a car owner, or just a figure in the series (or) as a role model in the series to younger guys. He’s somebody I rooted for growing up. 

“To think I’m racing against that guy, (to) have the relationship that I have with him, it’s pretty cool. He even hollered at me yesterday after qualifying for putting down a good lap. Cool to have some respect from a guy like that.”

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