Friday, Sep 24

It might feel like 2012 all over again. That doesn’t sound right, does it? How could that be? Time is just an illusion after all.

In a world in which cars are life comes one man who has prospered with a team that people could only dream about being a part of. Driving for Roger Penske, one of the most successful men in all of racing, this man has blossomed into a championship caliber driver year-in and year-out.

Brad Keselowski made an incredible run at the finish of the Geico 500 at Talladega to win the race and lock himself into the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But he has been under a lot of heat for the post-race drama created at Charlotte with Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

In the midst of all the chaos, Keselowski has now re-emerged as a championship favorite.

“It all kind of matters where we go from here with it, but certainly very proud of this past Sunday’s win,” Keselowski said in a press conference at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday. We’ve got four critical races in front of us. We’re probably going to need to win at least one of them and our heads down and focused, certainly coming here to Texas in about a week and a half to start that race weekend.”

Keselowski leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with six victories in 2014. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano trails him by just one as the two have become a force to be reckon with on a weekly basis.

He might not be making friends in the process of winning all of these races, but it is what is rare about the 30-year-old driver. Remember, at the beginning of his career, Keselowski was racing for his family-run organization in the Camping World Truck Series. He struggled to find sponsorship, but a few decent runs helped him land a job for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Nationwide Series team.

When Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. missed the race at Talladega, most people didn’t realize that some of the sport’s top drivers have not qualifying for a Sprint Cup Series event at one time or another. Jimmie Johnson even DNQ’d for a Nationwide Series race in 2000. Keselowski has missed a pair of events in the Nationwide Series and Truck Series, including one in 2012. But what might shock most people is that he’s missed three Cup Series events, and even did so while driving for Hendrick Motorsports at Dover in 2009.

That experience has made Keselowski the intimidating force that we now know.

“This season, and this point in time and probably throughout my career, it’s going to be racing as hard as I can race with a passion for winning,” Keselowski said on his demeanor. “It’s probably going to ruffle some feathers of people that have been in the sport longer than I have and kind of feel like this is their territory, but the alternative option of rolling over and playing dead just isn’t in my DNA and I don’t plan on ever allowing it to be.”

With a handful of races left in the season and Keselowski being on probation for a few more weeks, he’s going to be gunning for wins just as hard as ever. The intimidation factor that he brings to the sport on and off the track is one that has been missing for quite some time. There have been drivers that have intimidation in one of these two areas, yet Keselowski’s rare personality has helped breed him into a driver that is on the brink of winning his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

“Maybe sometimes I articulate it better than others, but I feel like I’m here to do one job and that’s to win races for my team. I’m not looking to make enemies, but certainly, priority number one is not making friends.”

 

Win or go home. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not.

Less than a week after being fined $50,000 for a post-race battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car is back in Victory Lane.

With some wild moves to block his competitors, Brad Keselowski charged to the front in an intense battle during a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski won his sixth race of the year with the victory in the Geico 500 over a hard-charging Matt Kenseth in what was arguably the most intense race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

 “Obviously this win is huge,” Keselowski said. “We feel like we have been one of the strongest teams all year here, especially the second half of the season. This team has worked hard and I feel like they deserve a shot at a championship. The issues we had at Kansas put us behind and having to fight all the way back, everyone executed and did their job today.”

After receiving damage to his right side door panel from a wreck with Michael McDowell on Lap 59, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion faced adversity throughout the day. However, without any major repairs needed, he worked his way through the field and led five different times throughout the race for a total of 12 laps.

With eliminations on the line, Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 84 laps on Sunday afternoon. For the No. 48 team, that was not enough to send him onto the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Johnson used the low line throughout the day, and threw countless blocks to maintain the lead. However, prior to the final round of green-flag pit stops, Danica Patrick swerved around the six-time champion to take the lead. Johnson dropped back a few spots in the midst of the first green-white-checkered stint and had to save gas during the caution period as well. But on the final restart of the day, the pre-season favorite slipped back to finish 24th at Talladega – eliminating him from championship contention.

Besides Johnson, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did not advance to the next round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran up front throughout the 500-mile event. Yet even with 31 laps led, the No. 88 Chevrolet could not survive the chaos at Talladega. On Lap 187, David Gilliland tapped Earnhardt on the backstretch; causing major damage to his vehicle. Entering Sunday, he had to win in order to advance to the next round of the title. After having his first multi-win year since 2004, he will not contend for the championship.

Kasey Kahne, who made the Chase with a win at Atlanta, was also eliminated from the Chase after Talladega. Although he was inside of the top-eight in points, with Keselowski’s win – he was sent back one position in the Chase Grid. Kahne finished 12th at Talladega, and was just three points behind teammate Jeff Gordon after the sixth race of the Chase.

Kyle Busch entered Talladega as the highest-ranked driver without a win in Round 2. For the majority of the day, he worked with Kenseth at the rear of the field – approximately four to five seconds behind the lead pack. The strategy was working, but then chaos erupted with “the big one.” On Lap 102, with cars wrecking in front of him, Busch checked up and was hit by rookie Austin Dillon. Busch’s car slammed into the wall and received major cosmetic damage and injured the toe of his race car. Although he was able to get back on track – 49 laps down – Busch was able to gain just three positions. He was four points behind Kahne and trailed Gordon by seven markers.

Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will advance to the next round of the Chase. Gordon will be the lone HMS driver in Round 3. Ryan Newman was just four points behind Logano after Talladega, and represents Richard Childress Racing as their only driver in the Chase. Kevin Harvick will advance to the next round along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards will also advance for Roush Fenway Racing.

Here are some notables from the Geico 500:

-Terry Labonte finished 33rd in his final Sprint Cup Series start (890th total) for Go FAS Racing.

-Landon Cassill finished fourth on Sunday for Hillman Racing. Prior to this race, his best career-finish was 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.

-Travis Kvapil ended the day in the sixth position for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33 car. The finish marks the first top-10 for Kvapil since an eighth-place finish at Talladega in 2012.

-Casey Mears earned his third top-10 of the year for Germain Racing with a 10th-place finish.

-Cole Whitt finished 15th for BK Racing. His previous best career-finish was 18th-place at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the year.

-Martin Truex, Jr. led his first lap of the year for Furniture Row Racing, but finished in 27th.

Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

After winning two races early in the year, Kevin Harvick has been on a winless streak for over six month. On Saturday evening, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet drove back into Victory Lane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500.

Leading a race-high 162 laps, Harvick was able to hold off Jeff Gordon on a restart with just a pair of laps remaining in the race to score his third victory of the season. With the triumph, he has now clinched his way into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Everybody on our team has just continued to build better race cars and we know that we’ve had the cars to run up front and lead laps and do the things that we need to do,” said Harvick on his win. “Things just haven’t gone right and we’ve made some mistakes; things haven’t gone right ore than not. Oh, we came here and tested thinking that this was going to be the hardest round to get through because of Talladega. There’s so much that you can’t control there. We wanted to try to control the things that we could control. We felt like Kansas and here (Charlotte) were playing to our strengths; and just see where it fell after that once we get to the next round.”

Following the race, Brad Keselowski had an on-track altercation with Denny Hamlin on the cool down lap. The No. 2 car finished 16th, and was racing tightly with Hamlin through the final laps. However, Hamlin brake checked Keselowski on the cool down lap. Simultaneously, he spun Hamlin in Turn 3 and then hit Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet as he was waiting in line to go into the garage on pit road.

“Through the whole sequence of events – I think the 20 car got in back of me on one of the restarts, it was just a racing deal and I wasn’t mad at him,” said Keselowski following the incident.  But when the last yellow came out he got the wave around and when he came by he swung at my car and tore the whole right-front off of it.  That gave us a big Chase hurt, which is unfortunate, and then for some reason after the race the 11 stopped in front of me and tried to pick a fight. I don’t know what that was all about and he swung and hit at my car, so I figured if we’re gonna play car wars under yellow and after the race I’ll join too.”

“I rubbed into the 20 and I think he gassed up and ran into Tony, and don’t think Tony knew what was going on so he’s probably upset and he has every right to be,” he continued. “His car got tore up, but there was a whole lot of other stuff going on and I’m sure when he sees the whole situation he’ll understand.” 

Following a confrontation with Hamlin, Keselowski was walking back to his hauler when Matt Kenseth jumped on his back. The No. 20 and No. 2 crews began to have a brawl, but they were separated within a few seconds. However, several drivers are calling for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to have a fine for what they believe was a dangerous move in the garage area.

Jimmie Johnson was running inside of the top-10 after struggling early on in the 500-mile race. The No. 48 team finished 17th after pitting during the final caution. Leading up to Talladega, he unofficially sits 12th in points; 26 markers behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the final position to advance to the Eliminator Round. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished 20th after going a lap down with a shifter knob issue during the race. He was never able to get back on the lead lap and is tied with Johnson in the standings.

Kyle Larson was battling Harvick for the lead prior to the final round of green flag pit stops, but slipped back to the sixth position. The No. 42 Chevrolet led six laps prior to sliding into the wall, which made him drop back a few spots. Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammate Jamie McMurray came home in the third position after taking two tires on a late-race pit stop to gain track position and was able to contend for the win

Both Michael Waltrip Racing vehicles experienced engine issues on Saturday evening. Clint Bowyer’s engine let go on Lap 95 following a top-15 run. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers’ engine blew up with seven laps remaining in the race.

There were eight cautions that lasted 39 laps during the 334-lap event. During the race, there were 32 lead changes.  

Heading into Talladega, Joey Logano and Harvick are automatically locked into the next round of the Chase with victories. However, there are 10 other drivers vying for six remaining spots. Kyle Busch is the highest ranked driver without a victory, but is just 26 points ahead of Kenseth, who is the first driver on the outside looking in. Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. are the four drivers that are currently outside of the top-eight. 

In a wreck-filled Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano was able to come out on top for the fourth time in the 2014 season for Team Penske. The Connecticut-native, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Loudon, has now locked himself into the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

During the Sylvania 300, there were 15 cautions as nine of the 16 drivers in the Chase were involved in incidents. However, Logano was able to survive after taking four tires during his final pit stop as his No. 22 Ford worked through traffic as five yellow flags were thrown within the final 50 laps. The victory marks the seventh in 211 career starts for the 24-year-old. Combined with his teammate Brad Keselowski, the Team Penske organization now has eight wins on the year; the first time they have amassed that many triumphs since Ryan Newman won eight races in 2003.

"This is my home race track, the coolest place to win for me," Logano said. "I could never pick a better race track to win.  I watched my first Cup race here when I was five and I won that other Cup race here, but I just felt like I had to win one the right way here, and this means so much.  I’ve got to thank all the boys at Team Penske.  We’re doing what we’ve got to do to win this thing right now – both teams are – and I’m proud of that.  This is my home track so it means so much to me.”

Keselowski had the fastest car throughout the race, and led the first 37 laps after starting from the pole. However, during the competition caution period, crew chief Paul Wolfe and he elected to take four tires – contrary to what everyone else did inside of the top 15. Keselowski dropped to 15th on the restart, and fell as far back as 22nd. With a drop more than 100 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth and he got together. Keselowski spun, but didn’t sustain any damage to his car. On Lap 228, the No. 2 Ford was back out front until Lap 268, but wasn’t able to hold onto the lead with a hard-charging Kevin Harvick taking over for a few laps until Logano set sail as he led the final 29 laps.

Jeff Gordon, who was in position to lock himself into Round 2 of the Chase, blew a tire with nine laps remaining in the race. The orange-soaked No. 24 Chevrolet raced inside of the top five throughout the 300-lap event, but finished the day with a 26th-place result. He now sits seventh in points, but is ahead of 12th-place driver Kasey Kahne by 15 markers.

Denny Hamlin finished 37th in the No. 11 Toyota after a wild day for Joe Gibbs Racing. His car was experiencing trouble getting his fuel tank full. During the caution flag on Lap 104, he brought his car down pit road to get the issue fixed. With a lack of comprehension for what was occurring, Hamlin began to scream at his crew chief Darian Grubb. He ended up getting collected in a multi-car wreck on Lap 179, which collected Cole Whitt, Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan.

Kyle Larson finished in the runner-up position for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. He came on strong late in the race after running outside of the top 20 during the first half of the event. Larson recorded his seventh top-five finish of 2014. His teammate Jamie McMurray had a strong showing at Loudon. The No. 1 car was inside of the top five for the duration of the Sylvania 300. Although he was not able to lead a lap, McMurray was the strongest non-Chase driver in the race. Larson currently holds a 39-point advantage over McMurray for the 17th position in the standings, which is the highest a driver can finish if they did not make the Chase.

Aric Almirola closed the gap to 12th-place in points with a sixth-place result in the No. 43 Ford. He is just 10 points behind Kahne, and is within four markers of the three drivers in front of him. Kurt Busch fell to 15th in the standings as he blew a tire on Lap 221. The finish dropped him back from ninth in points and is now behind Hamlin and Greg Biffle, who finished 16th after being multiple laps down on Sunday afternoon.

Five of the 16 drivers in the Chase finished outside of the top 20. Harvick is now locked into Round 2 of the Chase after finishing in third-place. He is 45 points ahead of Kahne, which is more than a full race advantage. 

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Sprint Cup has finally arrived. However, things are quite different this year.

In a move to have more drama to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, there will be four drivers eliminated after every three races. At the end of the season, four drivers will battle it out for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a one-of-a-kind duel.

With no way to know what to expect, the 16 drivers in the Chase will be gunning it out to make sure they don’t get eliminated. If a driver is out of contention, they can only contend for a position in points within the group they were eliminated with. But this is going to making things eccentric for the sport over the final 10 weeks of the season.

The 16 drivers in the Chase are now set. Here are my expectations for those drivers:

  1. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski should make it to the final round in the championship. He is on a tear as of late, especially in qualifying. Through just 26 races, he has led a career-high 1,278 laps; that’s more than 17 percent of all laps that he has completed. However, he has to make sure the team is not only contending for wins, but that they are also consistently up front in case someone else gets into trouble.
  2. Jeff Gordon: Gordon is having his best season in quite some time. There is something different about the driver of the No. 24 this year. He has developed an unbelievable relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson. Throughout the year, he has been one of the five quickest cars at just about every single event. If he can take the momentum he had from pacing the Sprint Cup Series during the regular season to the Chase, he will undoubtedly become a five-time champion.
  3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has had a good season, but that’s to his standards – not to Hendrick Motorsports standards. There is no doubt that he is one of the most consistent drivers in the Chase as he has a 10.9 average finish. However, it seems like he races inside of the top 10 for approximately two to four races at a time, and then has something go wrong that causes a setback. Expect him to be right on the border of making it to the final round at Homestead, but he might make it as Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are each strong tracks for him.
  4. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has not been known as the clear favorite this year. It’s likely because of the annual summer drought that the No. 48 team has gone through. However, this team is going to be just as strong in the Chase. Over the past four races, he has four top-10 finishes. A key to winning the title in this format will be consistently running up front, and Johnson did just that last year with just one finish worse than ninth. But Chad Knaus and he have had some awful luck at Homestead. If he can stay out of trouble at Homestead, he will probably be crowned the champion once again.
  5. Joey Logano: By far, 2014 has been the best year of this young man’s career. It’s hard to believe he is just 24 with six full-time seasons in the Cup Series. However, with his first multi-win season, he has begun to learn how to be a factor for wins on a weekly basis. The intermediate tracks have been insanely strong for the No. 22 Ford. He has never been in a position to win a championship like he is this year, and that could hurt him down the road as he deals with pressure against the veterans. With Team Penske’s speed this year, there is no reason why Logano can’t battle for his first career title.
  6. Kevin Harvick: This week, Harvick swapped pit crews with his owner, Tony Stewart. The move will likely take away the No. 4 team’s inconsistency on pit road, which has taken away valuable track position for the team throughout the season. Even though he only has two victories this year, Harvick has been in position to win about seven races. If he can have luck on his side for once, he will be right there with Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski at Homestead.
  7. Carl Edwards: Even though switching teams after the season is completed is not a distraction for the No. 99 team, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization is going through some blatantly obvious struggles. However, he has been the strongest driver with the team, and with some solid results – he will be there for the Eliminator Round. After that, it’ll be tough for him to make it to the final round, especially with Martinsville and Texas; two tracks he somewhat struggled with this year.
  8. Kyle Busch: It has been a roller coaster year for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Clearly, Busch can win a few races given the right circumstances. Things are cleared up with Dave Rogers and he. However, with just nine top 10s this year, he hasn’t shown this is going to be a championship caliber season. With Loudon and Dover in the Challenger Round, Busch can easily make his way into the Contender Round. It’ll be quite the challenge to get past that round, but if he can come out of Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega with a top 10 in each race, he’ll be able to advance.
  9. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been extremely inconsistent all year. However, he has been running rather well lately. If he can have some luck in the Chase, he can get rather far. He had a rough start to the season, but with 11 top 10s to this point, there is hope that Hamlin can at least get by the first round.
  10. Kurt Busch: Busch finally returned to Victory Lane this year and has shown speed nearly every week. In the Chase, there are a few tracks that he has struggled at. He should race his way into the second round, but beyond that is unlikely with a season full of inconsistency as he has just seven top 10s this year.
  11. Kasey Kahne: Besides his win at Atlanta, 2014 has been a season to forget for Kahne. With 10 top 10s this year, he hasn’t been horrific, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The No. 5 team will make it past the first round, but since they have been so inconsistent, it’s unlikely that they’ll go past that.
  12. Aric Almirola: Almirola was extremely lucky with his win at Daytona. Without that, there was not a shot that he would’ve been in the Chase. Even if he does awful in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, he’ll finish 16th at the worst, which would be a career-best for the driver of the No. 43 car. Chicagoland and New Hampshire have been good tracks for him. Although he is a long shot to make it past the first round, there is a slight chance that he can do so with a little bit of luck.
  13. AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger’s situation is similar to that of the No. 43 team. It’s unlikely that he’ll get past the first round, but stranger things have happened. With four top 10s this season, he has the potential to do well if he can get the most out of the limited equipment that he has. Running with an alliance with Richard Childress Racing has certainly helped JTG Daugherty Racing, but it has not solved all of their on-track issues. Worst case scenario – Allmendinger will finish 16th in points instead of outside the top 20.
  14. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has yet to score a win this year. He has run better than his JGR teammates all season, but just hasn’t had the luck he’s needed. With his 16 top 10s, Kenseth should make it far into the Chase. However, he won’t make it to the final round. Even if he can score a victory before the end of the season, it is going to be difficult for the No. 20 team to consistently be right there for wins as the entire crew has struggled somewhat this year.
  15. Greg Biffle: Biffle probably won’t make it past the first round of the Chase. He has had a brutal year. Somehow or another, the No. 16 team made the Chase based on points, albeit he has just three top fives. However, with five straight top 10 finishes prior to Richmond, he jumped six positions, which led him to 10th-place. If he can race like that, Biffle will make it past the first round. But if he struggles at the intermediate tracks like he has, then he won’t last too long in the Chase.
  16. Ryan Newman: This year, Newman has made a quiet, yet steady transition at RCR. He has 10 top 10 finishes, but he hasn’t really shown he is capable of winning races. Newman’s average finish is 14.1 through 26 races. Unless he earns a top five in one of the races in the first round, it’s going to be tough for him to advance. For the majority of the year, he has been a 15th-20th-place car, and he will need to improve upon that now. 
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