The Frontstretch: Keselowski Opens A Door Johnson Can’t Quite Step Through? by Mike Neff -- Monday October 15, 2012

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Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe have been doing it to perfection all year and they’re sitting in first place in points because of it. Jimmie Johnson has almost never done it successfully, but on Saturday night he did. Denny Hamlin has had mixed results but, like Johnson, it paid off for him on Saturday night.

What is it?

The fuel mileage game.

Keselowski has been schooling the entire garage on stretching fuel all year. They’ve won races because of it and they’ve had better results because of it. That weapon, probably more than any other in their arsenal, has been the difference this season. On Saturday night, it failed them. Yes, the damage was only half a lap, leaving the car able to finish on the lead lap, but it cost this driver half of his lead on Johnson and almost half of it on Hamlin. That misstep by the No. 2 team very well be what costs them the championship when all is said and done in November.

Prior to Saturday’s race, Brad Keselowski and his Blue Deuce team had been flawless this postseason. After Charlotte? They had what could turn out to be a fatal flaw.

Before Saturday night, Keselowski and his Blue Deuce team had been flawless this postseason with pit strategy and execution. Prior to Saturday night, Keselowski had notched two wins in the Chase to go along with a sixth and seventh-place finish. They had not only been schooling the rest of the Chase field, they had gone into one of Johnson’s strongholds, The Dover International Speedway, and flat-out beat the Five-Time champion at a track where he’s been almost invincible. On Saturday night, they were set to send another message to Johnson. They led the most laps and were the car to beat at Charlotte before an attempt to stretch fuel just a little bit too far ultimately knocked them from victory contention and opened the door.

Although Keselowski surrendered so much of his lead to Johnson and Hamlin at Charlotte, it was Johnson who actually gained more confidence in his abilities. It is difficult to find anything in Five-Time’s skill set that needs work, but milking fuel mileage out of Johnson’s car has long been the glaring weakness in his arsenal. Many times in his career the driver, at the behest of his crew chief Chad Knaus, has attempted to stretch fuel mileage in order to win a race to come home with a better than expected finish. Nearly all of those efforts have failed. The No. 48 sets the standard in most everything else but it generally pales when the gas mileage game comes into play. After the Bank of America 500, though Johnson is exuding an excitement in executing this type of strategy that he’s never shown before in his career.

“We lost track position, and that hurt us,” Johnson said after running third. “I’m disappointed, but at the same time, we didn’t have the ability to be in the game on a fuel mileage race [previously] and now we do. So I’ve gotten better, the team, the car… all of it’s gotten better. We’ve made huge strides in the fuel-mileage department. That’s the thing that I’ve feared the most from the 2 team, because they’ve been so good that we’ve just been bringing a knife to a gun fight in that department. Now, I feel we’re much closer.”

Johnson came into the Chase brimming with confidence and, with the exception of Talladega, he’s been the best of the 12 drivers eligible for the title. Two second-place finishes, a third place, and a fourth have Johnson right where he wants to be if he can’t be leading. He’s seven points behind Keselowski, heading to another 1.5-mile track. Among all of the drivers in the Cup series this year, Johnson’s 4.143 average finish is head and shoulders ahead of the rest at those types of facilities. Kansas is also a track where Johnson has won before, as recently as last fall, so even though the track was resurfaced, he has to have a feeling going into the race that he’ll be able to make hay once again.

For Keselowski, the turn of events at Charlotte will be a bit of a test to the mettle of the team. One thing that Keselowski has shown in his short Cup career, he can face adversity head on and not blink. Misfortune is brushed aside as quickly as it happens and the next challenge is faced with the same confidence and aggression as the last. Saturday night is still going to be a reminder that intermediate tracks are not the strong suit for Keselowski and his Penske team. With Kansas and Texas both looming on the horizon, and a mere seven points back to Johnson in the standings, he has to feel a bit uneasy about his potential to expand that lead.

If anything has been proven in NASCAR throughout its history, it is that everyone, especially the media, overreact on a week-to-week basis about the ebbs and flows of fortune. The best teams in a given year will most frequently finish near the front in the vast majority of the races. When something less than advantageous hits one of these teams, they will rebound better and faster than those that are below them in the standings because they have, at least for this year, what it takes to be in contention for a title. There is a very decent chance that Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin will battle among the top three spots again at Kansas just like they did at Charlotte and, assuming one of them finishes ahead of the others, the reaction will be the same again. The bottom line is this one: Keselowski had an advantage over Johnson in the fuel mileage department. It was a strong suit for Kes and a weakness for JJ. After Charlotte, the line between the two of them is much thinner than it was before the race.

Jimmie Johnson has the statistics to back up his position as a favorite heading into the final five races of the season. Brad Keselowski is in the top spot and has the benefit of being ahead of his pursuers, also holding an edge over everyone except Hamlin when it comes to tiebreakers. Hamlin is still there and a very viable contender thanks to picking up eight points on the leader Saturday. It is a three-horse race but, after Keselowski led the most laps and was poised to deliver a serious body shot to the title hopes of everyone else, his mistake means the position of favorite very well may have moved to the driver currently in second in the standings. Johnson didn’t kick the door down at Charlotte, but he most certainly got his foot inside.

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