Tom Bowles and Jeff Wolfe · Wednesday August 28, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is currently 11th in points and without a win in 2013. Will Keselowski make the Chase and have a chance to defend his title, or will he be shut out after Richmond?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: He’ll Squeeze In
Here we are, with two races left, and Brad Keselowski is sitting on the outside looking in on the Chase. Who would have thought? The reigning NASCAR champ has been through a nightmare of a season, fraught with penalties, off-track controversy, some poor luck and even a bad strategy call or two from crew chief Paul Wolfe. Miller Lite has gotten more bang for its buck in 2013; chances are, this team has drunk more of their sponsor already than during their charmed championship Chase of 2012.
In these cases, when you’re dealing with a budding superstar about 100 different things need to fall into place, the wrong way, in order for your year to go bust. It’s just like a 15th seed beating a 2 in the NCAA basketball tournament, and why it happens only once in a blue moon. NASCAR is no different; its 12-team postseason format has been without its reigning champ only once. Even then, in 2006 Tony Stewart just missed, having an awful race in the season finale at Richmond to fall out.
Will Kes become number two? He sits winless, a fact which will almost certainly leave him “wild card” ineligible and has no career victories at Atlanta or Richmond. In fact, he’s got just one career top-5 finish, combined at the two tracks, stats that hardly serve as a confidence builder. Add in surging teammate Joey Logano, currently running circles around the competition along with a surging Jeff Gordon behind him and the task ahead isn’t easy.
But there’s a reason why 15s so rarely win against 2s in those NCAAs: even in a worst-case scenario, the best teams dig deep and figure out a way to get the job done. Keselowski relishes this type of moment, the “underdog” label he rode all the way to the head table in Las Vegas. The “nobody believes in us!” card is being played as we speak inside the Penske Racing shops, and that will leave his organization pumped up. Mentally, while outwardly shaken after Bristol there’s no one I’ve met on the circuit that shakes things off quicker.
Yes, the stats sheet is not in his favor; virtually all his rivals have better historical numbers. But math never was all that favorable when Keselowski won the championship, either. How many times did we say “best career finish” in 2012 (or 2011, for that matter) at a track where he’d run 20th every previous start? The more important stats to look at are the ones teammate Logano is ringing up, particularly at the “cookie cutters,” where he won at Michigan this month. Keselowski could have won, too, with the right strategy, momentum that bodes well for a solid performance at 1.5-mile Atlanta. Then there’s Richmond, where he was seventh last Fall and has two top-10 finishes in the last three races there. You don’t have to win there, just “place” with that type of performance in order to sneak inside the Chase… and he can do that.
Keep in mind, without the 25-point penalty assessed in April, we wouldn’t even be talking about this scenario. Keselowski would be 21 points up, a solid eighth in the standings and sitting pretty for defending his title. A faulty rear end, combined with faulty luck is the only reason why you’re reading these words; it’s not like he’s been that far off.
Deep down, Kes and Company know what I say is true. Deep down, we know they have what it takes to get the job done. And a clean slate in the Chase means it’s anybody’s ballgame, a fact not lost on an organization flashing the most speed it’s had all season since mid-July.
It’s a lot closer than you would like to see for a reigning series champ. Certainly, back-to-back titles seem out of reach at this point. But maybe Keselowski’s lured us all into this trap. Maybe he knows what he’s doing… remember, all you need to do is make the field. While personally, I’ve had my doubts at times does he deserve the benefit of said doubt after his title?
The answer is yes.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: He’ll Miss the Show
Brad Keselowski found the spotlight during the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and once he was in it, he discovered he liked it a lot. It all started on that late-Monday-night Daytona 500. That’s when the race was red-flagged for the now famous Jet Dryer Fire when Juan Pablo Montoya accidentally hit one of the track dryers, causing a large fire on the race track.
During the red flag, Keselowski took the phone in his car and started tweeting and answering tweets, and he became an instant celebrity. Maybe it was some of that new-found fame that helped carry him into the Chase and to last year’s title. Keselowski’s extra-extra large glass of Miller Lite that he was working on during a SportsCenter interview was maybe one of the more comical moments of the season.
In between, he proved he was more than just a side show for the cameras, he was a real contender all season. But somewhere between that victory celebration at the end of last year, and Chase contention this year, Keselowski lost his swagger. Maybe it was the switch from Dodge to Ford, pretty much necessitated by Penske Racing being the only Dodge team in the Sprint Cup series. Maybe it was the ability to find victory lane and to really want to find it again? Maybe it was this idea that once you’re a champion you have a little extra responsibility to act and perform a certain way and the pressure that comes with it? Maybe it’s because NASCAR outlawed drivers having phones in cars?
Maybe it’s been a little bit of all of those things.
Keselowski goes into the last two races of NASCAR’s regular season without a win this season and sitting 11th in the points standings. Surely, reaching the Chase is still quite possible for him as he is just four points behind tenth-place Joey Logano.
But to make the Chase, Keselowski may have to do something he’s not done yet this year – win. He has shown some frustration at times this season for his team’s lack of ability to end the day in Victory Lane. That’s notable because if he’s concerned about it, he may have some doubts on whether the team can earn what has been an elusive win this season. If he was more relaxed about it, then you’d get the feeling he knows a win will be coming. And the fact that 24 races are complete in the 36-race season and the No. 2 has not finished No. 1, shows Keselowski’s concerns were and are valid.
Those concerns were apparent at Bristol Saturday night. It wasn’t simply the fact that he was caught up in a late-race accident and ended up finishing 30th. It was more the fact that Keselowski did not lead a lap on a track that he has been dominant at, until Saturday, in the recent past.
Keselowski experienced the highest of highs last year. And while it’s not unusual for the second-place Chase finisher to struggle a bit the next year, it is a bit unusual for that to happen to the defending champion.
We’ll give him a little credit in that “Bad Brad” seems to be a person of the past, with that attitude pretty much gone. But a little bit of the winning edge that came with that attitude is gone, too.
And the way things have gone for Keselowski this season, he’ll be referred to as a past champion. That’s because all of the pressure to do just everything right this year will ultimately lead to him missing the Chase this year.
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