Early in NASCAR’s 2019 season, Team Penske appeared to have two top shelf contenders for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. Brad Keselowski kicked off their effort, rolling to three victories in the first 12 races of the year. After a disappointing playoff run in 2018, the No. 2 team was looking like a good bet to experience a rebound.
Reigning champ Joey Logano, meanwhile, earned two victories of his own in the first half of the season. The defending champion led the point standings for several weeks during the summer and showed off impressive consistency.
At the other end of the spectrum was Ryan Blaney. In his second season piloting the revived No. 12 car, Blaney has often looked like the forgotten man at Penske. While his veteran teammates were cruising toward the playoffs, Blaney would start off most races strong, only to get derailed by the end of the event. Whether it was flat tires, getting collected in someone else’s accident or bad mid-race adjustments, the 25-year-old never seemed to be able to finish as well as he ran. Even though Blaney remained a decent bet to make the playoffs, it appeared he had very little chance of making a deep playoff run.
How surprising, then, is Penske’s situation following Sunday’s race (Oct. 20) at Kansas Speedway? Keselowski is out of the playoffs after the Round of 12 for the second year in a row. Logano made it through, but just barely as he had more than one scare during this 400-mile race. And where was Blaney? He had already advanced to the Round of 8 after a thrilling win at Talladega Superspeedway last week.
How did the Captain and his crew get here, and what should we expect from Penske going forward?
In the first place, Keselowski’s season bears further examination. While the 2012 Cup Series champ had lagged behind Logano in terms of consistency and overall points scored this year, the No. 2 clearly had the speed to win races. The team crushed the competition at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, leading 446 laps on the way to victory.
The other two wins were cases in which Keselowski seized opportunities to take the checkered flag, defeating other drivers who had faster cars throughout the race. At Atlanta Motor Speedway in February, Keselowski did not score a single stage point and led only the last 33 laps. Of course, those were the laps that mattered most, with Keselowski holding off a late charge from Martin Truex Jr. to steal the victory.
The No. 2’s win at Kansas in May came in similar fashion. Keselowski led only 12 laps, most of which came after passing Alex Bowman late in the race. He then held off Bowman and Erik Jones on an overtime restart to secure the victory.
Although Keselowski hasn’t won any additional races this year, his wins gave the impression that the No. 2 team would be able to capitalize on a fast car and a good opportunity. Instead, they faltered in a big way as this year’s NASCAR playoff progressed.
The first round featured three great performances by Keselowski, all of which resulted in top-five finishes. The next result, an 11th-place run at Dover International Speedway with two stage points, was serviceable enough. And while getting swept up in a late crash at Talladega Superspeedway did Keselowski no favors, the 14 stage points he earned prevented the points loss from being severe.
Sunday’s race is the primary reason Keselowski was eliminated. The No. 2 team struggled all afternoon with a car that had no speed, especially over the long run. Even when gifted with a new opportunity to pick up points on an overtime restart, Keselowski got bottled up in traffic and slipped below the cutline thanks to Chase Elliott’s strong finish. It’s a surprising result given Keselowski’s strength earlier in the season and his victory at Kansas back in May.
That said, 2019 has become the latest chapter in Keselowski’s struggles with the elimination-style playoffs. Despite qualifying for the postseason in all six years of the current 16-driver format, Keselowski has only advanced beyond the Round of 12 three times. His only appearance as one of the final four championship contenders was in 2017, where he finished fourth out of four.
That’s surprising considering this format appears well-suited for Keselowski’s personality. He originally made a name for himself as a tough and cool-under-pressure driver, known for aggression and persistence. He was the racer who faced down Jimmie Johnson at the height of the No. 48 team’s dominance and beat him for the 2012 championship.
But unless you count 2017, Keselowski hasn’t really been close since then. His team is one of a handful in NASCAR that can consistently win and earn good finishes, but it can’t seem to put its best foot forward in the elimination-style postseason.
Keselowski’s exit means Blaney and Logano will have to carry the banner for Penske. For Blaney, making the Round of 8 is a great accomplishment. When a solid run for the No. 12 team at Dover fell apart due to a suspension failure, Blaney’s title hopes looked dead. Leave it to Talladega to be the place where he finally found some good luck. His drive in the closing laps there was masterful, dodging the carnage at the end of the race and slipping past Ryan Newman to score a major victory.
In fact, it turned out to be a great thing for Blaney that he won Talladega, because Sunday’s race at Kansas was back to reality for the No. 12 in 2019. Running in the top 10 late in the race, a flat tire eliminated Blaney’s chances at another win. He limped home to a 21st-place finish, another result that was not indicative of how well the No. 12 ran. Until Blaney can close out races with more regularity, it is hard to trust him as a true title contender.
As for Logano, his championship hopes, and really his whole season, have been saved by stage points. It was the No. 22 team’s ability to win stages and rack up those bonuses that kept Logano atop the standings during the summer. It was also stage points that salvaged Logano’s day at Talladega last week and gave him an 18-point advantage above the cutline following a disastrous day at Dover. And it was stage points that saved Logano at Kansas on Sunday.
When the first caution of the afternoon came out shortly before the end of the first stage, Logano was running in the teens. The No. 22 team wisely decided not to pit and gain track position for the two-lap green flag shootout that would end the stage. Crew chief Todd Gordon’s strategy worked perfectly, with Logano winning the stage and picking up 10 valuable points. They came in handy later, as the No. 22 faded during the final stage, then went sliding through the infield during a multi-car wreck that set up another overtime restart. But Logano held on and advanced to the next round of the playoffs by nine points. Yes, those points Logano earned from winning the first stage were the difference between him or Keselowski getting eliminated.
Do not be fooled be the rocky playoff performance of Logano. The No. 22 team may have struggled through the Round of 12, but its strategy of maximizing stage points has served them very well thus far. Keselowski may have had the wins, but wins were not enough to save his title dreams in the end.
Logano is the best Penske driver still standing, and he has once again solidified himself as their biggest title threat.