NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Haloes, Half-a-Ride and an Historical Ending?

*ONE: ESPN’s “Miracle” Grasping at Straws*

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Was it really all that surprising to see the No. 2 climb from P32 to P6?

Considering Martinsville was the hardest track left on the schedule for Brad Keselowski, given both his limited experience at the speedway and the strength of fellow title contender Jimmie Johnson’s setup at the paperclip oval, there was definitely a reason to celebrate finishing sixth on Sunday. Keselowski scored his career-best result there, kept heavyweight Johnson within two points despite giving up a win this late in the Chase, and even survived a late-race gamble to stay out that nearly backfired when all but two cars opted to take tires during the final cycle of pit stops.

Having said that, ESPN’s post-race interview was certainly making Keselowski’s performance out to be a bit more…dramatic…than it was. It was called the “Miracle At Martinsville,” all because Keselowski climbed from 32nd to finish sixth.

Let’s be clear: Sunday was a big-time performance by the No. 2 and Penske Racing. They survived despite a bad gamble, they delivered at a track that has not been their forte, and Brad is in a virtual dead heat with Jimmie Johnson with three races to go. Plus, crew chief Paul Wolfe has yet to run his mouth in a way that would get Chad Knaus angry. But… a miracle it was not. 500 laps at Martinsville is one of the longest races in terms of opportunities to make up track position, especially when one does not run into serious trouble over the course of an afternoon. The reality is, Sunday was a tame Martinsville race, especially when compared to the spring’s melee of a finish, and Keselowski’s result was a performance expected of a true title contender.

So impressive, yes; but there was nothing miraculous about it. Hearing the afternoon described as such in the post-race reeked of desperation from a broadcast network more than anything else. For crying out loud, it’s the circuit’s best track. Is it that hard to find something else to accolade accurately?

*TWO: MWR’s Limited Slate for Vickers Short-Sighted*

On the plus side, and on the strength of another solid performance at Martinsville on Sunday, it’s good to go into this week knowing that Brian Vickers will be racing Cup (albeit in a limited schedule) again in 2013. MWR announced that the driver lineup for the No. 55 team will be about identical to this year’s, with Mark Martin running most races, owner Waltrip appearing in some plate events and Vickers filling in the rest.

It’s good to see MWR keeping Vickers in the fold, as his performance as essentially a relief driver in 2012 has been as strong as seen in recent memory by a driver in a limited role. But having said that, keeping Vickers confined to a schedule that’s not even a third of the slate is a short-sighted move by MWR, and even sponsor Aaron’s. For as much of a draw as Mark Martin remains both on and off the race track, his career is nearing the end. Meanwhile, Vickers has shown a level of talent and hunger that can make serious noise at the Cup level every time he’s raced in 2012; plus, sponsor Aaron’s has lacked a long-term driver face since Michael Waltrip’s semi-retirement.

The way Vickers is driving — with five top-10 finishes in eight Cup starts — he’s going to be getting looks across the Cup circuit. But by playing the Mark Martin game, MWR is playing Russian Roulette with a big name in the wings that’s set to be a long-term solution for the organization. Instead of committing to the future, they’re leaving him free to be poached for another year while relying on the veteran that’s counting down the clock.

And don’t forget, the last two teams Martin has joined since leaving Roush… his best results came in year one.

*THREE: Regan Smith’s Uphill Climb*

Considering how late in the year and unceremoniously he was let go from Furniture Row Racing, landing a full-time Nationwide ride at JR Motorsports could almost be considered a promotion for the Cup journeyman. Though he’s being demoted by series, after spending a number of years as a Cup regular, Smith is moving to a ride that has proven capable of winning races. (Just ask Brad Keselowski.) Coupled with the fact that Danica Patrick’s focus is shifting to Cup next season, plus Cole Whitt’s uncertain future (depending on sponsorship), Smith will also be the operation’s focus heading into 2013.

It’s a great situation for the veteran to find himself in; already a Cup winner, he will immediately be a championship contender and under the Hendrick umbrella should a chance to move back up come available. The only snag point? JR Motorsports has had only one driver in its history able to sustain success in its cars, one Brad Keselowski. Aric Almirola never won for the organization, then fell out of title contention in his season with the No. 88 team before finding any sense of consistency. Kelly Bires, Mark McFarland, and Shane Huffman all washed out. Cole Whitt has had a disappointing 2012 after his rip-roaring rookie season in trucks a year ago. Danica Patrick has hardly proven a superstar.

On paper, this is a great move for Smith and a great hire for JRM. Problem is, that movie’s played here before.

*FOUR: History Says Phoenix The Deciding Race*

There are three races left in the 2012 Chase. With only two points separating Five-Time and the challenger, it’s a virtual deadlock and reset heading into Texas. So who’s got the advantage?

Texas has proven Chase kryptonite (or the closest thing the Chase has to it) for the No. 48 team. Be it the ugly ninth-place run the team had in 2010 that saw them lose the lead to Denny Hamlin — leading to the infamous pit crew benching — or the year that Johnson was severely damaged scarcely after the race had started, courtesy of contact with Sam Hornish, Jr., Texas has not proven a 1-2 connection for a team that has dominated the Martinsville event preceding it.

On the other side of the equation, the No. 2 has got to be looking at Homestead like a deer in the headlights. Keselowski has never finished in the top 10 at Homestead, while Johnson and Co. wound up in the runner-up spot at the track the last time they had the title on the line.

That leaves Phoenix as the wild-card race that will likely decide this Chase. Johnson finished fourth in the spring, Keselowski finished fifth. Johnson has never run outside the top 15 at Phoenix in his career, while Keselowski has only finished inside the top 15 twice, albeit in far fewer starts.

It’s the perfect metaphor for their competition: the new young gun trying to buck history against the big powerful champion. And it goes to show that in a race this tight, the stats may as well get thrown to the wind.

No need for science to come to the sport’s rescue here. Just sit back and hope a repaved track and two intermediate ovals can put on a show worthy of the tight point standings.

*FIVE: Greetings From the Other Keselowski*

One of the better Twitter exchanges I’ve seen in a while came courtesy of “Jeff Gluck”:http://www.twitter.com/jeff_gluck/ and Brad Keselowski’s outspoken brother, “Brian,”:http://www.twitter.com/KeselowskiBrian/ who took to the social media outlet to commend Gluck for effectively using sarcasm to represent his brother and his title contention in 2012.

No point to ponder here, other than Brian Keselowski’s disappearance from the garage this year has been overshadowed by his brother’s monster season. If the sport has to put up with two Busch brothers, it’d be nice to have two Keselowskis.

Three races left in the 2012 Chase.

*Connect with Bryan!*
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“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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