TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Brad Keselowski packed a punch on the track, the only place that mattered after a controversial week. Pushed around in the garage, he came out fighting like a champion at Talladega Superspeedway, where his win Sunday staved off elimination and pushed him into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Brad Keselowski packed a punch on the track, the only place that mattered after a controversial week.
Pushed around in the garage, he came out fighting like a champion at Talladega Superspeedway, where his win Sunday staved off elimination and pushed him into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"There's a part of me that's come to accept that this isn't going to be easy," Keselowski said, referring to both his week and his career.
Fined $50,000 by NASCAR this week for his post-race meltdown at Charlotte, Keselowski's professionalism had been under attack and his season was slipping away. He reported for work at Talladega, where he had to win to remain in title-contention.
It was no easy task as Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were in the same must-win position, and hadn't been knocked around all week the way Keselowski was for losing his cool at Charlotte.
"I'll take the 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn't you?" Keselowski team owner Roger Penske said. The owner and driver can just take the fine out of the winner's check of $288,361.
But Penske, winner of the IndyCar title this year with Will Power, strongly defended the driver who gave him his first career Cup title two seasons ago.
"These guys are jealous of the job he's done this year," Penske said. "He's won six races. He's made poles. He's been up front. Nobody likes to see a guy win like that.
"I want him to get mad. I don't want him to take it. We talked about it (last week). I said, 'Brad, put it in the rearview mirror.'"
Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, the winners of the first two races in the second round, also advanced to the third three-race round along with Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Kenseth. The field will be cut to four after the ninth race. Points are reset after each round, and the title will be decided by finishing order in the Nov. 16 finale at Homestead.
After the race, NASCAR said Newman's car failed inspection because it was too low on both sides of the back of his Chevrolet. Penalties will likely be issued Tuesday, but that infraction typically is docked 15 points. Newman holds a 27-point lead over Kasey Kahne, who was eliminated Sunday.
The much-anticipated championship battle between Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports took a major hit. Penske got both Keselowski and Logano into the third round, but Hendrick had three of its four drivers eliminated Sunday. Only Gordon advanced.
"Great teams, great drivers, great friends. I hate to see them not in there," Gordon said about Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne.
Here's how other drivers fared at Talladega:
NEW CHAMPION: NASCAR will have a new champion this year following the elimination of six-time and defending champion Johnson.
A poor race at Kansas put him in a deep hole in the second segment that he couldn't climb from. Johnson took a moment to watch Keselowski's post-race celebration, and later turned his head to watch Keselowski drive by him on pit road while waving the American flag in celebration.
It's the first time Johnson has been out of title contention before the finale since 2011, when he was inspired by watching contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards hold their pre-finale news conference.
"I vividly remembered the lunch presser that took place with the champions and how much that ate at me to watch it on TV and not be a part of it," Johnson said. "I get the pleasure of going through that again. I went down swinging, and I take pride in that."
EARNHARDT'S ENDING: It's been a career year for Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 and two other races to become a legitimate title contender.
But NASCAR's most popular driver will have to wait until next season to grab his elusive first Cup championship. He was eliminated Sunday following a 31st-place finish that was aided by late contact from Greg Biffle that caused him to wreck.
He said he was disappointed, but will move on.
"I'm not retiring or anything, so we'll try next year," said Earnhardt, who turned 40 last week. "We've had a good season and have a lot to be looking forward to. We're definitely not going to get too tore up about. We didn't run well."
KENSETH-KARMA: It was just last week that an enraged Kenseth had Keselowski in a headlock following the race at Charlotte.
Angry that Keselowski had hit his car on pit road following the race, Kenseth jumped him from behind in between a pair of haulers in the darkened garage.
So it was widely noted that it was Kenseth on Keselowski's bumper on the final lap Sunday, when Kenseth essentially aided Keselowski's win.
He was able to find the humor in it, but said anyone questioning it was overthinking.
"You have to do what's best for your best finish," Kenseth said, noting that following Harvick would have knocked him out of traffic.
"I knew my path to the best finish was going to be at the bottom (of the track). That's where I felt I had to put my car for my best chance at the best finish."
PATRICK LEADS: Danica Patrick had the potential for a big finish at Talladega, where she led seven laps late in the race and won the battle off pit road after a round of pit stops.
She was in good shape to race for the win until a caution set up a restart with nine scheduled laps remaining. She got a pep talk from her spotter before the field went green, "You gotta believe in yourself here. I know you can do this, gotta prove it to all these other guys."
But she made a poor move that knocked her out of the pack, and she dropped through the field.
"I got either hung out to dry, or I made a bad move," she said. "I don't know what I should have done different."
She settled for a 19th-place finish.
SURPRISING ELIMINATION: Being in the wrong place at the wrong time cost Kyle Busch his championship hopes.
He was hit by Austin Dillon from behind during an accident early in the race that sent Busch to the garage to repair his car. He had entered the race ranked second in the standings, but his 40th-place finish dropped him to 10th and out of the Chase.
"I thought we were in a decent spot coming into the race and rode around in the back," crew chief Dave Rogers said. "Kyle got checked up for the wreck and had everything saved up, but he got run over from behind. There is no safe place here. The truth is that if you're out there on the race track at Talladega or Daytona, you have a pretty good chance that you're going to get in a wreck, and today was our day."
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