He sustained some damage when he got bumped early on, and then lost a lap when he failed to get out of the pits quickly enough. And by the time the final laps were ticking away, the sheet metal on the rear of the car had finally come loose, flapping like tinfoil in a 200 mph breeze.
Through all the adversity, though, Keselowski persevered.
After the back bumper sheared off, he came in for a late pit stop that allowed the crew of his No. 2 Ford to patch things up. Keselowski charged back onto the track, and then through the field, roaring to a sixth-place finish that made him feel as if he’d won the race.
“Usually you’re not happy unless you win,” Keselowski admitted, “but you know, a day where you can fight through adversity like we did and get a solid finish, that’s kind of is a win, yes.”
Particularly given everything the Penske team has gone through.
“It’s been a long week,” Keselowski said, “but you know what? We’re not giving up.”
Nor should they be. The defending Sprint Cup champions are sitting third in points, trailing only Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne as the series shifts to Richmond next weekend.
But things could be getting a lot more difficult.
Penske Racing was dealt severe sanctions by NASCAR after inspectors found unapproved parts under the cars of Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano two weeks ago at Texas. Among the punishments were six-race suspensions for seven members of the two teams, probation through the end of the year, $100,000 fines for each crew chief and 25-point penalties for each of the drivers.
The team has appealed the sanctions, arguing that they were operating in a “gray area” with regard to modified rear-end housings, and the hearing is expected to take place this week.
“I certainly don’t think it’s cheating,” Roger Penske told The Associated Press from the IndyCar race in Long Beach. “We all work in the gray areas. We’re trying to be as competitive as we can be, we’ve got very creative minds and it takes a lot of creative minds to be competitive.”
It will be up to a three-member panel to decide whether creative was also illegal.
In the meantime, Penske Racing arrived at Kansas Speedway with crew chief Paul Wolfe and the rest of the No. 2 team intact, along with Logano’s No. 22 team and the No. 12 of Sam Hornish Jr.
For most of the afternoon, it was turning out to be forgettable.
Logano bailed out on the apron when he saw Kyle Busch skidding down the banking of the corner midway through the race, but he had nowhere to go. The two cars wound up in a bone-jarring, nose-to-nose collision that sent debris scattering over the track’s recently repaved asphalt.
Hornish got into trouble with 84 laps to go when Marcos Ambrose got sideways right in front of him. The two collided, and Casey Mears joined in a wreck that also included Danica Patrick, leaving two of the three Penske entries looking like aluminum cans that had been stepped on.
Keselowski’s car wasn’t in much better shape. The minor damage to the rear quarter panel from early in the race kept peeling away bit by bit.
“I could feel something was wrong with it, but I couldn’t see it,” Keselowski said afterward. “So you don’t know what magnitude it is. Obviously it must have been pretty severe.”
It was severe enough that his crew was concerned.
“On that last restart, he kept asking the spotter before we started, he said, ‘Where’s the wind? The wind feels different,’” said longtime Penske executive Walt Czarnecki. “At one point he said, ‘It’s like I’ve got a parachute hanging out the back of the car.’
“It was quite a drive,” Czarnecki said. “One of the best I’ve ever seen.”
When it eventually popped off, it brought out a caution that allowed Matt Kenseth to seize control, and ultimately hold off Kahne for his second straight win at Kansas.
But the yellow flag also allowed the No. 2 team to finally bend their car back into shape, and that was enough for Keselowski to start driving to the front as the end neared.
“Wasn’t that great?” Penske said. “With all the trouble they had, and the accident on the first lap, and Joey and Sam being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I think it was an amazing finish, and shows just how tough the team is. We’ve got to move on here and keep on racing.”
And keep showing the kind of resilience they exhibited Sunday.
“We’ve been really strong almost every week, and it’s just a matter of fighting through that adversity that every race is going to throw at you,” Keselowski said, “and I think my team did a great job with that this weekend and so far all year.”