CONCORD, N.C. — Brad Keselowski, in a contract year and trying to increase his value as a potential free agent, gave team owner Roger Penske a victory on what should have been the most celebrated day in motorsports but was instead just a six-plus hour NASCAR show.
Keselowski extended Jimmie Johnson's losing streak to 102 races by holding off the seven-time Cup Series champion in overtime early Monday to win the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the NASCAR schedule.
It was the first win for Keselowski this season, his first Coca-Cola 600 victory and the first win at this event for Ford since 2002. The 2012 Cup Series champ celebrated his 31st victory on the elite circuit as he usually does, waving a giant American flag out his window during his victory burnouts on the front stretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
When he first got out of the car for his network interview, the silence at the track was a downer.
"I was kind of bummed. I wanted to win the 600 my whole life and wanted to win in front of everybody," Keselowski said. "But that's not always how it works. I know there are fans that wish they could be in the stands."
In these unusual times of the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR was still adapting in its return to racing that started one week earlier. This event was its third Cup Series race in seven days — all without spectators — and limited media access.
Wearing a white Team Penske face mask, Keselowski went to the empty infield media center for a news conference conducted via Zoom. Unable to hear the questions, he shouted into the computer.
"Can you talk really loud?" the 36-year-old driver yelled. "My ears are ringing."
The Sunday before Memorial Day is a supposed to be a smorgasbord of motorsports that begins with Formula One at the Monaco Grand Prix, then IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, followed by NASCAR and what is considered one of its crown jewel races.
The coronavirus pandemic has wiped out the first part of F1s schedule and, like IndyCar, that international circuit is still waiting to start its season. Penske, the new owner of the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has moved the Indy 500 to Aug. 23. It marks the first time since 1946 the 500 is not being run on Memorial Day weekend.
NASCAR was able to resume its season under a health plan approved by state officials that allowed the sport to resume after a 10-week hiatus. NASCAR ran three events at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, and the Coca-Cola 600 kicked off four consecutive days of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A rain delay of nearly 90 minutes during the first stage of the race pushed the finish into Monday, but it still ended up just fine for Penske, the owner of Keselowski's car who should have spent Sunday celebrating his first Indy 500 as owner of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
"This is one of the biggest days for him," Keselowski said. "Winning never hurts."
Johnson finished second, one spot ahead of devastated Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, as Chevrolet is still seeking its first win since NASCAR resumed. But almost two hours after the checkered flag, Johnson was disqualified because his Chevrolet failed inspection after the race.
"We think something must've broken but won't know until we get it back to the shop," said crew chief Cliff Daniels. "Tough news after a strong night."
Elliott had a comfortable lead and was coasting to the win when William Byron, another Hendrick driver, spun with a tire problem.
"That's got to be a joke," Elliott said over his radio.
Elliott was wrecked by Kyle Busch trying to race for the win last Wednesday night, which led to Elliott flipping Busch the bird from the track apron at Darlington.
This time, he was briefly consoled by Busch as he climbed from his car on pit road after the race — but he was openly disappointed for the second time in four days.
"I was a lap and a half away from winning the 600," the 24-year-old from Dawsonville, Georgia, said. "This week has been pretty unfortunate; we have had some tough losses."
This race was snatched from Elliott by the caution for Byron and then the pit decisions that followed.
Elliott pitted, and Keselowski led a train of eight cars that stayed on the track. He lined up in front of Alex Bowman on the inside line with Johnson on the bottom ahead of Keselowski teammate Ryan Blaney.
Keselowski got the push to get into clean air and denied Johnson — who qualified second, one spot ahead of Elliott — a victory that would have been short-lived.
"I feel like I have thrown this race away a handful of times, and I thought we were going to lose it today," Keselowski said. "I have lost it the way Chase lost it and it really stinks. And today we finally won it that way."
Blaney was third, Busch fourth in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Kevin Harvick — a little more than earning the 50th Cup Series victory of his career in NASCAR's return race — was fifth for Stewart-Haas Racing as Ford filled three of the top five spots.
JGR's Martin Truex Jr. was sixth, Kurt Busch seventh in a Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet after earning pole position during qualifying Sunday afternoon, and Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher filled out the top 10.