CONCORD — The champ is back in Victory Lane.
Brad Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion who failed to earn the right to defend his title in this years Chase, crashed Victory Lane for the first time this season after a wild battle with Kasey Kahne in Saturday nights Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
At one time during the race, Keselowski was penalized for driving out of his pit stall with his jack still connected to his car.
He moved into the lead on Lap 322 and engaged in a back-and-forth battle with Kahne over three laps before putting some distance between the two of them.
It was just a never-give-up night. We had a lot of struggles tonight but we kept working our way forward, said Keselowski, who earned the 10th win of his career and first at Charlotte.
I knew we had a fast car. I thought we were as good as (Jimmie Johnson) and (Kahne), I never really had a chance to race them. I think we were probably even.
Keselowski said when he exited pit road on the final stop and was close to the top five, he felt there was enough time for four tires to get him to the front.
I raced Matt (Kenseth) hard. I really raced Kasey hard. I love hard racing, Keselowski said. There are a handful of guys you cant race hard with in this deal because they freak out and Kasey is not one of them.
He ran me hard but ran me clean.
Kenseth, the series points leader, finished third, Johnson was fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth.
We were on two (new) tires and he was one four, so I felt like (Keselowski) could maneuver better than I could, Khane said. I did everything I could to keep him behind me.
I thought I was reeling him back in with a lap or two to go but then I scrubbed the wall of (Turn) 4 trying to get all I could.
With five races left in the Chase, Kenseth holds a four-point lead over Johnson.
I was happy to finish third. We were off on the first two or three runs, and I just couldnt stand it, Kenseth said. We really woke the car up mid-race. We were just so far behind because we qualified poorly.
The Hendrick Motorsports organization took control early as its four drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne combined to lead 73 of the first 74 laps.
Mark Martin lost a cylinder early and finally lost the engine on Lap 82 which brought out the second caution of the race.
Well, we broke a valve spring earlier and we were trying to nurse it along to maybe a caution where we could possibly work on it a little bit where it wouldnt self-destruct, but we didnt get that, Martin said. When you run one with a broken spring a lot of times you wind up failing something else.
I hate that for everybody. I hate that we brought out a caution, but we were just trying to do the best we could there.
On the restart on Lap 91, Kahne led the way followed by Earnhardt and Johnson. Earnhardt quickly powered to the lead after taking the green flag.
Kahne ran Earnhardt back down and retook the lead on Lap 96.
On Lap 126, teams began a series of green-flag pit stops. Once the cycle of stops was completed on Lap 133, Kahne remained out front followed by Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon.
Debris on the track brought out the third caution of the race on Lap 173. After pit stops, Kahne was the first to come off pit road. On the restart, Johnson beat Kahne to the line and reclaimed the lead.
Another round of green-flag stop began on Lap 224. Once the cycle was completed on Lap 230, Johnson emerged with a comfortable lead over Kahne, followed Kyle Busch, Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.
After 250 laps, Kyle Larson, who was making his debut in the Cup series, was forced to the garage with a blown engine. Larson at times was running as high as 11th while he was in the race.
With less than 15 cars running on the lead lap, teams began yet another round of green-flag pit stops on Lap 273. Once the cycle was completed, Johnson remained with the lead followed by Kyle Busch, Khane, Kenseth and Ryan Newman.
With 50 laps remaining, 14 cars remained on the lead lap as Johnson kept a furious pace.
On Lap 289, Bowyers engine dropped a cylinder and he began dropping through the field.
Debris on the backstretch brought out races fourth caution on Lap 306. All of the lead lap cars pitted for fuel and tires with Kahne moving into the lead on the restart on Lap 312 with the help of a two-tire pit stop. He was followed by Gordon and Johnson.
With 15 laps left, Keselowski moved into second behind Kahne, followed by Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.