Brad Keselowski emerges as NASCAR’s best on restrictor-plate tracks

With a deft touch requiring fortitude and a keen understanding of his surroundings, Brad Keselowski thoroughly controlled Saturday’s Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway.

A familiar sight was seeing Keselowski protect his lead by swooping high to prevent the outside line from passing, then veering to cutoff the momentum of the low line. He did this almost continuously throughout the Coke Zero 400.

It wasn’t revolutionary how restrictor-plate races unfold, yet it didn’t diminish just how delicate the practice of defending one’s position is as a slight misstep carries the very possibility of triggering a multi-car pileup. Just as what occurred when Jamie McMurray clipped the nose of Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet turning McMurray sideways and resulting in a wreck that collected over half the field on Saturday night.

The Team Penske driver executed near flawlessly and led 115 of 161 laps in winning.

Keselowski’s ability to move his car where and when he wanted it allowed him to attack, such as when he passed brothers Kyle Busch with 16 laps remaining. Running behind the defending Sprint Cup champion, Keselowski executed a crossover from the high lane all the way to the bottom to pull alongside of and eventually ahead of Kyle.

A pass that proved decisive. Keselowski wouldn’t relinquish the lead the remainder of the race, despite a pair of late cautions including one that setup a two-lap shootout.

“Definitely the best car I’ve ever had here at Daytona,” Keselowski said. “I’m glad I didn’t waste it.”

That Keselowski could essentially dictate the proceedings due to the superiority of the car he had underneath him, wasn’t lost on the competition. Had Busch tried similar defensive-driving tactics and moved to block Keselowski’s winning pass, he acknowledges a crash would have transpired.

“He definitely just had way more maneuverability it seemed like than anybody, but especially more than I did,” Busch said. “I don’t know how he got the kind of run that he got, but when he got that run down the frontstretch getting into Turn 1 and was able to turn to the bottom, my car would be kind of loose doing that, it would just over-rotate on me a little bit.”

Following the May 1 race at Talladega Speedway, Saturday marked Keselowski’s second consecutive plate track triumph. He now owns four career wins at Talladega and one at Daytona, the most by any driver since 2009.

Keselowski’s victory total makes a strong case that it is he, not Dale Earnhardt Jr. — with three plate wins during that span and 10 overall — who should be regarded as the best in races where NASCAR reduces speeds by limiting air to the engine, consequently forcing drivers to race in a large pack.

“There’s a lot of great drivers on these plate races and a lot of variables to put them all together,” Keselowski said. “Those numbers could shift a lot of ways fairly easily, so it’s hard to make a comparison.

“When we have a great car, I feel like I can compete and make a run for it.  You’ve always got to have the car, but when you have the car, you’ve got to make the most of it, and we were able to do both today.”

Keselowski’s point that a driver is often at the mercy of their equipment when it comes to success at Daytona and Talladega is more than valid. Even the very best have little chance of contending without a sleek aerodynamic, properly handling car and a powerful engine.

Lacking the necessary tools is why Earnhardt, as great as he may be in executing the nuances of drafting, has struggled in all three restrictor-plate races this season. Due to a car that he nor his Hendrick Motorsports team can get to handle adequately, Earnhardt spun himself out in February at Daytona and again at Talladega.

On Saturday, he was a complete nonfactor, finishing 21st. The frustration reached such heights Earnhardt frequently voiced that displeasure on the radio, punctuating his comments with accompanying f-bombs.

And with Penske having refined its plate track program — Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano won races at Daytona and Talladega in 2015 — and Keselowski possessing Earnhardt’s drafting acumen, to say Keselowski has emerged as the restrictor-plate dominator isn’t far fetched.

It fact, it may be entirely accurate.