He entered Sunday's AdvoCare 500 race at Phoenix International Raceway trailing five-time champion Jimmie Johnson by seven points and had the better car all day. And moments after Keselowski raced his way into the lead, a blown tire caused Johnson to crash and take his car to the garage for repairs.
It helped Keselowski, who finished sixth, to a 20-point lead in the Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he will clinch the title with a finish of 15th or better.
"I wanted to take the points lead by winning a race and not relying on a failure," he said.
Johnson's misfortune was a dramatic and stunning turn in the most chaotic race of the year.
"I'm more just disappointed in the quality of racing that we saw," Keselowski said. "I thought it was absolutely ridiculous, and I was ashamed to be a part of it."
Kevin Harvick ended a 44-race losing streak by beating Kyle Busch on a pair of late restarts.
Harvick crossed the finish ahead of a melee of crashing cars, a chain reaction caused in part because NASCAR failed to throw a caution when Danica Patrick was spun on the restart. Others slid in oil into Patrick's wrecked car.
"There was oil all over it. Ray Charles could see that," second-place finisher Denny Hamlin said.
But the carnage was the final exclamation point in a sequence triggered by four-time champion Jeff Gordon. He intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer, and that led to a brawl in the garage.
Gordon said he retaliated for several weeks of on-track contact from Bowyer, so he slowed until Bowyer came around, then slid down the track when Bowyer tried to get around him. Both cars, along with Joey Logano, wrecked and were out.
After Gordon climbed from his car in the garage, one of Bowyer's crew members grabbed him from behind, prompting Gordon's team to run over. A melee involving about two dozen ensued, with some on the ground brawling as security tried to break it up.
"Things just got escalated over the year, and I'd just had it," Gordon, 41, said. "Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me, and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I've had it, fed up with it, and I got him back."
Bowyer sprinted to join in and made it onto the platform of Gordon's hauler but was stopped there by NASCAR officials.
"It makes us all look like a bunch of (idiots)," Bowyer, 33, said. "It's pretty embarrassing. For a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best this sport's ever seen to act like this is pretty ridiculous."
Asked if he planned to retaliate in the future, Bowyer said, "We just have to see."
Both drivers and their crew chiefs were called to NASCAR's hauler for a meeting as police officers stood outside. NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the situation would be looked at further.
"We should have more fights," Harvick said. "They're not always fun to be in, sometimes you're on the wrong end, but fights are what made NASCAR what it is."
Keselowski, who was criticized by other drivers for racing Johnson hard on restarts last week, believes there's a double standard at work. "These guys just tried to kill each other," he said. "You race hard, and I get called an (expletive) for racing hard … and I see (stuff) like that, and it's just (ticked) me off."