By Ryan Isley
If the last two months are any indication, we are in for one heck of a ride as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season heads to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That’s because one of the most entertaining drivers in the series – Brad Keselowski – is right in the middle of the hunt for the championship.
When the season began, it looked as if the pain of missing the Chase last season after winning the Sprint Cup Series championship in 2012 was behind him. He started the season as one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series along with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick, finishing third in the Daytona 500 and the Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and winning the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After a 14th-place finish in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Keselowski found himself on top of the standings for the first time since winning the same race in 2013.
Despite the good start, all wasn’t good in the world of Keselowski, as he saw himself plummet from first in the standings to 11th after a 38th-place finish at Talladega in the 10th race of the season. But unlike in 2013, Keselowski was able to turn things back around this season so far. Since falling to 11th, he has been on a steady climb and finds himself third in the standings after 19 races, but would sit first if the Chase started with the next race on the schedule.
The reason for his ascent to the top? A remarkable string of races where he has finished third or better in five of the last seven races, including two wins. The 30-year-old has absolutely dominated in those two victories, leading 199 of 267 laps in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on June 28th and then 138 of 305 laps at the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last week.
The only two races in that stretch where Keselowski didn’t finish in the top-3 were the road course race at Sonoma Raceway and then Fourth of July weekend at Daytona International Speedway, the two wild card courses over the past seven races. Sonoma because of the road course factor and Daytona because anything can happen at a restrictor plate race, and it did, as there were multiple big wrecks when the race finally was run on Sunday, a day late because of rain.
The stretch is a little reminiscent of the one Keselowski had in 2012 when he won the Sprint Cup Series championship and ended Jimmie Johnson’s quest for his sixth championship in seven years. Starting with a win at Kentucky Speedway in the 17th race, Keselowski went on to finish in the top-10 in 17 of the final 20 races, with three wins and eight top-5s. He had just one finish outside the top-15 in those 20 races – a 30th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway – and had an average finish of 6.7.
Overall in 2014, Keselowski has three wins, nine top-5s and 10 top-10s in the season’s 19 races.
One of the reasons Keselowski finds himself near the front of the field at the end of the race is because he puts himself near the front at the start of the race. He has won three poles and has qualified on the front row nine times. His 7.3 average start position is the best in the series, with his Roger Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano the only other driver under 10 at 9.1. The last driver to go an entire season with a better average starting position was Ryan Newman in 2005 when he sat on the pole eight times and had an average start of 6.3.
When Keselowksi won the championship in 2012, it was one of the more fun seasons we have had since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as he was the newcomer – the fresh-faced kid who was going head-to-head with Johnson. And Keselowski never backed down.
With just one race to go and leading Johnson by 20 points in 2012, Keselowski sat and took the mind games that Johnson was trying to play at the press conference prior to the season finale. Johnson might have been laughing at the time, but it was Keselowski who laughed last when he finished 15th in that race to beat Clint Bowyer by 39 points for the title. Johnson? He fell to third and finished 40 points behind Keselowski.
It was then that Keselowski won over some fans, but alienated others. While being interviewed live on ESPN after winning the championship, Keselowski was celebrating while chugging Miller Lite out of an oversized glass. For some fans, it was great. He was just like us, a guy who enjoys a nice cold beer. For others, it was seen as a black eye on the sport – living up to a stereotype of NASCAR being “NECKCAR.” Some saw it simply as a guy having fun after the biggest moment of his career, while some saw it as an immature act from someone not ready to be in the spotlight.
Personally, I didn’t have any problem with it at the time. Unfortunately for Keselowski, he missed the Chase the next season, so it made it look as if he was too busy enjoying his championship and making the rounds with the media to concentrate on racing. Fair or not, that was the perception. This season has been different. Keselowski seems to have been able to find a comfortable median when it comes to business and pleasure. As far as business, his results do the talking. As for the pleasure, he has still taken time to do things such as appear in an episode of “Sullivan and Son” on TBS that aired this past week.
Maybe he has changed, maybe he hasn’t. But no matter what side of the aisle you are on in the argument, one thing is clear – when Brad Keselowski is in the Chase, things get interesting. That will be the case again this season, as he has clinched his spot.
So sit back, crack open a cold one, and enjoy the ride.