Thomas Bowles · Monday August 8, 2011
I’m a stats guy living in a writer’s body, a failed mathematician with a healthy dose of superstition on the side. So it’s no surprise to me that as Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line, completing one of the great “iron man” performances in recent history all that I could think about was similar to a closing line from Sesame Street:
This race has been brought to you by the letters K, J, and the number two.
Sounds silly, right? Especially considering what Keselowski did was a physical feat rarely equaled in NASCAR’s Chase era; only Denny Hamlin’s torn ACL, then seemingly instantaneous recovery post-surgery in Victory Lane at Texas last season can compare. It was a two-pronged lift for the driver in his sophomore season – comments after the race, humbly praising soldiers killed in Afghanistan as the real heroes also moved mountains in establishing himself as a role model, not a rebel amongst the fan base. Off the track, Keselowski can no longer be viewed by his peers as a one-hit wonder; he’s the first driver in years to move up the ranks the right way, from Trucks to Nationwide to Cup and develop into a proven major-league talent.
And as I stared at the number two painted on the side of his Miller Lite Dodge, that digit melted into the overall theme of his race. Two days was the time between crashing at Road Atlanta, turning his ankle into a bucket of mush and getting back in a race car to practice at Pocono. Questionable whether he’d even be cleared to drive, Keselowski shrugged off painkillers and won his team’s respect for hanging in there even after a Friday practice spin. The car wasn’t crushed, but Keselowski was clearly dazed just 48 hours after emerging from a wreck he’ll likely never fully remember.
“As far as the pain scale, hell, I don’t know,” he said. “I know it just hurt. But everything kind of came together here, and we were able to overcome adversity, and I think when we look back at this years from now I think that’s what I’ll think about.”
“I woke up [Sunday] morning feeling like we could win the race. I came here to win. And when you let the pain get into your head that far that you don’t believe you can win anymore, you’ll never win.”
Of course, the credit can’t go to driver alone, that second victory the mastermind once again of crew chief Paul Wolfe. It was Wolfe who put himself on the line, taking a top-10 car and choosing to pit it just before a driving rainstorm stopped the race with 124 laps complete. With a bigger radar blob coming behind it, thirty miles wide, Wolfe was one of the few actually present who thought the Pocono mountains would snuff out the moisture, NASCAR sticking with a chance to dry the track rather than call it 200 miles early. Two hours to dry the triangle, thought Wolfe, would mean the race gets restarted with Keselowski sitting alongside teammate Kurt Busch in the front row. And if he’s wrong? They finish 24th, lose ground on that crucial top 20 benchmark and watch their Chase reservations put on a waiting list… for 2012.
“Just tell them, Paul,” his driver said in the post-race press conference, smiling knowing the depth of that decision. “You got balls this big.”
“Because if it wouldn’t have worked out, man it would have been rough.”
But big gambles can lead to big results… and this one certainly did. That move took guts, plus intelligence similar to when Wolfe, plus Brad used fuel mileage to snooker his opponents at Kansas this June. For if there’s anything people have underestimated about this duo, it’s the brains they pair with an award-winning level of Penske engineers that now find themselves building chassis on point. After an ugly start, all parties knew top-10 finishes would do nothing to get them into the postseason; their only chance was to get aggressive, roll the dice and hope to come up with enough wins to make things interesting.
“It’s all about those two wins to get into the Chase,” said Wolfe. “We knew that’s what it was going to take. I felt like it was somewhat of a gamble to come down at that point. But at the same time we felt like it was an educated gamble at that. It wasn’t just a shot in the dark.”
“And once we got the car up front, obviously we showed we had the speed as much as anybody. There on that last restart, the [No.] 18 and ourselves were pretty equal there; it was all about making it happen on the restart, and that was all Brad there, being able to get out front.”
A sense of urgency paid off, with the reward? Two victories and a climb back to 18th in points, perfect position to earn a “wild card” berth with minimal resistance. Barring some sort of epic collapse, it’ll lock Keselowski into a playoff where rival Denny Hamlin, friend Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Hendrick “replacement” Mark Martin could be locked out. And the kicker is that he, combined with teammate Kurt Busch have worked their postseason magic as a two-car operation, this year’s Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in a world where three and four-car superteams reign supreme. Left without a bigger network, like Stewart-Haas Racing has with their four-car HMS counterparts, Penske has taken the small Dodge outfit and made it better, more refined despite the elimination of a third information-sharing car in Sam Hornish, Jr.’s No. 77.
As for Busch, the car with two two’s on the side got busy battling two J’s: a man who’s rarely rattled but left Pocono clearly ruffled by some last-lap contact that nearly wrecked them both. It led to a post-race verbal confrontation, one Johnson described as a “lot of yelling” as both sides agreed to disagree in public while the fans cheered over another version of Pocono Days of our NASCAR Lives.
“I could have run into him. I could have moved him a lot of different ways to get that position, but I didn’t, you know?” said Johnson, who stayed patiently behind Busch only to have his fenders hit when finally pulling alongside on the white-flag lap. “I just don’t understand why, when I finally get position on him, he’s got to run all over the side of me down the straightaway. It was a great race. The thing is here, track position is everything. And every driver is trying to get what they can, when they can, because you can’t pass. And it took me that entire fuel run to set up that pass on him and I finally got it done and then that problem happens. So that’s where my frustration comes in.”
It’s anger shared by Busch, as well, who was called a crybaby by the five-time champ but explaining it seems it’s Johnson that expects to be raced with a 50-foot restraining order around each side of his Chevrolet.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to pull over with five to go,” he said. “And [Jimmie] wants to come over and b*tch about it. Why can’t we race each other like this, put on a show for the fans and not have a problem?”
“Here we go, People magazine,” he added later to a reporter. “We were racing hard. I think that’s what we saw on TV and exactly that’s what should be reported. There are a lot of times when the [No.] 22 is on the short end of the stick of the [No.] 48. And I raced him hard today. I’m glad I did. I have no regrets.”
The real show, of course, lies in postseason positioning, with Busch playing the age-old game of intimidation we’ve seen before. Remember Loudon, New Hampshire, and a run-in with Jimmie Johnson last June? The No. 48 won the race, but Busch made his presence felt with a short-track nudge that left enough ruffled feelings to fill a therapist’s office for weeks.
“We didn’t just flat-out wreck them. We didn’t cut his tire,” Busch said then. “We didn’t drive over him. It was just a nice nudge that we are all used to seeing and appreciating on short tracks.”
It’s a game he has to play, but keep in mind it’s also a mentality this driver, at times struggles to control. Once again, in-race frustration had him venting to the Penske Racing crew so abusively Sunday it’s a shocker one of those four-race tire changes didn’t come with a crew member disconnecting the radio. An unhealthy dialogue, no matter how it’s spun that needs to change and certainly can spill over into the way Busch plays with others.
But in this mess, Johnson is far from blameless. Check out his quotes from that Loudon showdown a year ago:
“If it was his intention,” Johnson said back then of that nudge, “That’s the first time in nine years racing with him that I have experienced that and definitely changed the way that I race with him from that point moving on. My goal was to wreck him.”
Yet here we are, a year later and the second major time (with many minor incidences in between) Kurt pulls this stuff, clearly bent on seeing where he needs to draw the line with the No. 48 and Jimmie stands down.
“I’m not going to run people over to pass them,” he said Sunday. “That’s just not me. I worked on him for however many laps trying to get by him clean, fair and square and as I got next to him we had that issue off of (turn) two. I just keep filing things away. I’ll remember this stuff.”
Hmm. How many times are you willing to file, Jimmie? Couldn’t you say until that memory leads to action, actual payback Kurt’s big hit number two will turn into three, four, five as everyone tries a more aggressive strategy to prevent Mr. Johnson from taking consecutive title number six. So J.J., for all his talk has to shore up that possible weakness. One of these days, a Juan Pablo Montoya with consistency will come along and have no problem knocking the No. 48 out of the way, every time as respect is replaced with that Dale Earnhardt, win-at-all-costs philosophy. Will Johnson clinging to those values cost him then?
His late-race trouble, a disappointment considering the No. 48 was battling for the win on Lap 124 was just one of several issues for drivers hurt by two segments. Men like Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Busch the elder joined Keselowski in thanking NASCAR for taking the time to dry the track, believe in Mother Nature and go back green. On the flip side, that decision killed momentum at Joe Gibbs Racing: Joey Logano went from hero to zero, leader at the time of the red flag only to slip into a 26th-place disaster that did nothing to convince Home Depot they didn’t wind up with a consolation prize going forward. Add in Denny Hamlin, dropping down from a top-5 finish to 15th after a loose lugnut, and suddenly Joe Gibbs Racing has a Chase bubble crisis on its hands – courtesy of Mother Nature’s quirky history with the Tricky Triangle.
So two drivers, owned by a J (Joe Gibbs) pulled the ultimate K (strikeout) down the stretch at Pocono. That about wraps it up except hey, did you hear about who won the Truck race Sunday morning? Turns out it was Kevin Harvick… driving Truck number two.
You can’t make this stuff up.
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