Splitter to Spoiler: Keselowski puts Ford back on top at Martinsville

Keselowski snaps a 15-year losing streak, stage racing is perfect for Martinsville and Hendrick isnt far off despite slow start

Michael Thomas Shroyer—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) stands with his wife and daughter during the national anthem prior to the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

There may be a new team in the Ford garage, but Brad Keselowski is quickly proving he’s still the manufacturer’s top dog.Bad Brad did just that by leading the final 43 laps — 116 total — to hand Ford its first victory at Martinsville since 2002 with Kurt Busch. The victory was Keselowski’s second of the season and Ford’s third on the year, both of which lead the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series through the first seven races.”It felt like we were due, and if you ever can be, this is probably one of those tracks, and today was one of those days where we persevered in a special way,” Keselowski said. “Very special for a lot of reasons. This is one I’m never going to forget and going to be thankful for a long time.”One clock is nice, of course, but I’d like to have another later down the road when we come back here in the fall.”Keselowski not only used the opportunity to celebrate with his team, but made a point to celebrate with the fans. In an unprecedented move, Kes went up into the grandstands to hand out high fives to his fans who stuck around following his burnout and hat dance in Victory Lane.While he’s always gotten a bad rap for his reckless style early on in his career, Keselowski is a driver devoted to his fan base and a great representative for NASCAR. Honestly, if he had that same brash attitude, drove a black No. 3 car and had the last name Earnhardt in the early 1980s, Keselowski might have been the most popular driver of his generation.Instead, he’ll settle for being the best driver in the Ford stable and make his current fans feel special whenever he can.”This might not be the track where I get the loudest cheers, but that’s okay,” Keselowski said with a smile. “That’s part of what makes this sport go around, too. I just felt really good about it, and I just saw a couple people that I knew up in the grandstands … and I wanted to say hey to them and a couple of fans that have been coming to this race for a long time of mine.”Stage racing made 
for short tracksSome fans have been indifferent on the stage racing format. At certain tracks like Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas, it seemed to just be another component of the race to break up the action.But Sunday proved why NASCAR implemented the new system: It was clearly meant for short tracks.The end of the first stage saw what nearly amounted to a multi-car pileup as four drivers tried to fight their way into the top 10 for the stage points. That was nothing compared to Ricky Stenhouse’s bump-and-run on Kyle Busch at the end of the second stage to remain on the lead lap, propelling Chase Elliott to a stage win.”I was trying to be a nice guy, but nice guys don’t finish first,” Busch said about Stenhouse. “Do whatever you want. It’s going to come back and bite you one of these days.”While Busch was clearly miffed by Stenhouse’s antics, the Roush Fenway Racing driver finished inside the top 10 for the second time in the last three races thanks to the move. Stenhouse has shown speed early in the season, but the results have been mixed. Using the stages to his advantage was crucial on Sunday.As for the rest of the field, Austin Dillon was one driver able to add to his fifth-place result with two points from the first stage by finishing ninth. Dillon, who has gotten off to a slow start this season, was happy to see the fight for positioning midway through the race.”It definitely got wild at the end [of the stages],” Dillon said. “That’s what we’re creating, and I like that. I mean, it’s fun, and as long as you’re not in the guy’s that’s getting wrecked or turned or any of that, my day was good.”Don’t count Hendrick out just yetChase Elliott has been strong all season. Jimmie Johnson is the defending champion. Kasey Kahne is still in the top 15 for a playoff spot.All three drivers have shown an ability to run near the front this season, but the wins just haven’t come.Elliott won another stage on Sunday with the bump and run Stenhouse pulled on Busch and ultimately finished third. That’s pretty solid with a car he admittedly said before the weekend he wasn’t sure could run in the top five.He was the lone driver in the top 10 for Hendrick, with Johnson and Kahne finishing 15th and 14th, respectively. Johnson did challenge for the lead at times, but wasn’t able to find that late-race glory that won him last spring’s race at the Paperclip.Notice one driver missing from that mix? Yeah, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return is still floundering for Hendrick.Earnhardt was enjoying one of his best races of the season when he was dealt a penalty for speeding on pit road. Just a few laps later, he was involved in a multi-car wreck that sent him to the garage with a blown radiator and finished the race in 34th.”They just stopped and I couldn’t,” Earnhardt said. “I got into the back of the No. 5 (Kasey Kahne). His bumper knocked the top of the radiator off of it, knocked the fitting off the top of the radiator. … I’m disappointed with the way we’re finishing. We’ve got to finish better than this.”I mentioned last week that Junior has seemed a step behind the competition this season. On Sunday, he just happened to be behind the 8-ball. He proved he’s not done just yet with his performance at Martinsville prior to the wreck, but a win at Daytona, Talladega or Pocono seem like a necessity for the No. 88 team to return to the playoffs.