RICHMOND, Va. — Brad Keselowski entered the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs certain he has as good a chance at the 2020 season championship as favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. He even predicted he'd win at Richmond Raceway.
Keselowski's confidence was justified and his persistence rewarded as the Team Penske veteran dominated Saturday night at the Virginia track, leading 192 laps in the second playoff race and advancing into the next round, when the field of 16 drivers will be trimmed to 12.
On a night when the only caution flags at the 0.75-mile D-ring oval were those scheduled by NASCAR, leading to plenty of green-flag pit stops that jumbled the leaderboard, Keselowski's No. 2 Ford kept rising to the top.
"I tell you, it's a chess game and I got blinders on," said the 36-year-old Keselowski, who won the 2012 Cup Series title but has finished better than fifth in the season standings just once since then. "I don't know what everybody is doing and who is where and who is on what strategy, but (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, the whole 2 team, excellent performance."
Stewart-Haas Racing's Harvick, the title favorite, has a series-best eight wins this season, including last Sunday's playoff opener at Darlington Raceway to earn the automatic berth into the second round. Joe Gibbs Racing's Hamlin, derailed at his home track of Richmond by a speeding penalty, finished 12th — just one better than his Darlington result — but still advanced into the next round based on points.
Keselowski was the only driver able to run with Harvick and Hamlin when racing resumed in May after a 10-week pause for the COVID-19 pandemic. He won three races during the regular season — when Harvick and Hamlin had a combined 13 victories — earned a contract extension with Penske and steadfastly maintained he should not be discounted in the title chase.
He didn't do a celebratory burnout after making good on his Richmond prediction because that specific car has won twice in as many races this year, and Keselowski wants it intact for the championship-deciding finale Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
That doesn't mean he thinks he's already locked up a spot as one of the four drivers who will be eligible for the championship that day.
"We've got to get there," he said. "The last two years I haven't made it all the way, so we've got to get all the way there, but if we can get to Phoenix, we're going to be really good. I don't want to look too far ahead — the next round is going to be really difficult — but still I am really pumped about this performance."
Keselowski also gave Team Penske a sweep of the day. Will Power won for the IndyCar arm of the organization earlier Saturday in Ohio, where the open-wheel series will run again Sunday.
Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski are the only drivers locked into the next round of the playoffs. Hamlin has six wins but just one in the past nine races, leading to frustration.
"It just seemed like once the track rubbered up, we just weren't any good," he said.
Headed into next Saturday night's elimination race at Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway, William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney are below the cutoff line.
JGR's Martin Truex Jr. finished second at Richmond, followed by Penske's Joey Logano and Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon, who has opened the playoffs with back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup Series career. Hendrick Motorsports' Chase Elliott was fifth, with JGR's Kyle Busch sixth and Harvick seventh.
"I wanted to win, and going for three in a row here would have been pretty cool," said Truex, who swept Richmond's two races in 2019 but gave some perspective to Saturday's result by adding: "When your car is off and you can run second, it says a lot about your team."
Logano called it a "pick your poison" night when adjustments never got his car quite right, but he was happy to secure his second consecutive third-place finish because of what it meant to his playoff standing.
"We're doing what we have to do. We scored stage points and a top five, and it puts us in a pretty good spot for next weekend," Logano said. " You can top three, top five all the way to Phoenix if you keep doing this."