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Keselowski Catches Late Break, Wins Coca-Cola 600

Brad Keselowski took home the checkered flag at the Coca Cola 600.
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A late race caution changed everything at the end of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. With only a few laps to go, Brad Keselowski was running second behind Chase Elliott, who appeared to be walking away with the win, until Elliott’s teammate, William Byron, cut a tire and brought out the caution with just three laps to go.

As Larry Mac pointed out perfectly on the broadcast, this was truly a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moment for Elliott. Under the final caution, the question was who would stay out and who would pit. Since Elliott was the leader, it was fair to assume that any choice his team made, every team behind him would do the opposite, and that’s pretty much exactly what happened. As the #9 team decided to come to pit road for tires and fuel, many teams behind them decided to stay out, opting for track position and the chance for clean air, including the eventual race winner, Brad Keselowski. 

On the final restart, Chase Elliott found himself in 11th, instead of the lead. While he was able to drive all the way back up to third in just two laps, it’s clear that the call to pit cost him the race, while the call to stay out by crew chief Jeremy Bullins, won Brad Keselowski the race, as Brad was able to hold off Jimmie Johnson for his 31st career win.

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Throughout the race, which was officially the longest in NASCAR history at 607.5 miles, we saw a few cars show dominant speed, including Alex Bowman, who led 164 laps and appeared to be the car to beat through the first half of the race, but ultimately ended up finishing 19th. Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano also spent some time up front, but didn’t have the track position towards the end, and finished 6th and 13th, respectively. 

At times, the race felt a bit boring and dry, but there’s a few reasons for that. This race, more than any other, is a marathon, not a sprint, which means taking care of your equipment is absolutely vital. Many drivers don’t put themselves in precarious positions for a while in races that are over 400 miles, and this happened again last night.

The other thing that made this race seem slower at the beginning was the weather, and I’m not talking about the rain. The warm temperatures make the racetrack more slick, which means less grip and slower speeds. As the race transitions from day to night, the temperature drops and the track gains grip, which helps pick up the pace a little bit.

Finally, the track did have some traction compound put down in the outside lane of the turns, but it didn’t appear to really come in to play until the middle of the race. It often comes in much sooner and gives drivers the chance to run in one of two grooves throughout the turns, but when it doesn’t, the race starts to feel like a single-file train running laps around the track. 

Wednesday’s upcoming race may not feel the same, though, since it is a much shorter race than last night’s. Teams will have to act with a sense of urgency that didn’t really exist at all last night. I expect them to do whatever they can to stay out front with good track position and clean air, and if Chase Elliott has the lead with three to go under caution again, I’d expect him to stay out this time.