CONCORD, N.C. — 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 year’s Chase, earned his first trip to Victory Lane this season, holding off Kasey Kahne to win Saturday night’s 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 pair.
Series points leader Matt Kenseth finished third, Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth.
With five races left in the Chase, Kenseth holds a four-point lead over Johnson.
The Hendrick Motorsports organization took control early as the 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 his No. 14 Chevrolet on Lap 82, which brought out the race’s second caution.
“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 wouldn’t self-destruct, but we didn’t get that,” said Martin.
“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, Enumclaw driver 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, Kahne, Kenseth and Ryan Newman.
With 50 laps remaining, 14 cars remained on the lead lap as Johnson kept a furious pace.
On Lap 289, Bowyer’s engine dropped a cylinder and he began dropping through the field.