Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy looks at why Brad Keselowski is emerging as the 2014 title favorite.
Is it too early to pick a hands-on favorite for this year’s Sprint Cup title? Perhaps, because just about anything can happen in nine weeks of racing. One team can get white-hot, one that was running well can stumble, someone else can trigger a crash that ends a team’s hopes. The new Chase, with its seemingly endless eliminations and points resets, poses a new challenge because nobody can put a lasting gap on the competition. But already, Brad Keselowski is making it clear that he plans to be a top contender. Here’s why:
1. He’s fearless.
Keselowski is one of those drivers who isn’t going to back out if he thinks he can make something stick, and he thinks he can make just about anything stick. We’ve all seen his pass for the lead at Chicago (and in case anyone missed it, it’s below), but that’s just one in a long line of on-track moves that work because Keselowski believes in himself wholeheartedly and commits to everything 100 percent. That means if someone is going to need to back out, it’s probably going to be the other guy. With the championship on the line, there are only so many times a driver can back out and not suffer the results.
2. You can’t get in his head, either.
There are some drivers and teams in the garage who are very good at playing head games … and they can work. Jimmie Johnson is one driver who was able to gain a psychological edge during the Chase and turn that into a title, most notably in 2010. Johnson never once admitted to being worried, even when Denny Hamlin had the lead, and his cool attitude may have gotten to Hamlin, who struggled to remain composed in the final weeks. Fast forward to 2012, though, and nothing Johnson did made a chink in Keselowski’s armor. Even when the No. 2 team did have issues, there was no panic, no sense of extraordinary urgency. Keselowski and his team just simply don’t buckle under pressure, and many other teams will do just that as this thing goes on.
3. But he can get in yours.
Keselowski is a lot like Johnson in his ability to outthink an opponent. He appears unflappable, which can be unnerving all by itself. He also has a way of carefully choosing his words when it suits him, and with a subtle dig here or a confident statement there, he can make others around him nervous. And face it, in the Chase, if the competition is worried or distracted, that’s a good thing, because any minor slip in concentration can be the difference between one position and the next in any given race. Don’t think one position will make a difference? Just ask Carl Edwards.
4. He can contend anywhere.
Looking at Keselowski’s past stats at any track is largely an exercise in frustration because they tend to not matter. Just when the competition thinks they’ve arrived at a track where Keselowski has struggled, he reels off a great finish. During his 2012 title run, Keselowski was supposed to struggle at tracks like Martinsville and Texas, but instead, he finished good enough to keep the pressure on Jimmie Johnson and eventually won the title. The past means little to Keselowski, who enjoys bucking every trend he can; indeed, he sees those tracks as motivation, and he can’t be counted out anywhere.
5. The points reset worked in his favor.
It often seems like the points reset at the start of the Chase gives an extra jumpstart to at least one team. There’s generally one or two drivers who might not have been contenders simply because of an early deficit who end up in a much better position after the reset … and sometimes, they go on to win. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart are a couple of drivers who may not have been contenders at all without benefit of the extra points they were given but went on to win it all afterward. Keselowski was within striking distance without the reset, but the battle would have been an uphill one because he’s not beating Jeff Gordon by much even when he wins. Keselowski is certainly using the system to his advantage so far, and under the rules the teams must play by, that is what makes champions.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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