Brad Keselowski hugged the bumper of Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of Happy Hour practice Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.
When asked if whether he was initiating a little cat-and-mouse game, Keselowski responded coyly, “C’mon, would I do a thing like that?”
Keselowski knew he had a fast car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. He let his racing do the talking on Sunday. Keselowski led twice and pushed Johnson to his limits. In the end, after Johnson crashed and Keselowski finished sixth, he left on top of the championship battle.
But Keselowski never gloated about taking the points lead from Johnson, knowing all too well that a similar fate could be his in this weekend’s season finale.
“Certainly, if you have the choice you always want to be in the lead of the points, especially in the closing races, so I’m thankful for that,” Keselowski said. “But I also know that the troubles that they had are the same troubles that we could have next week, and so you try not to take anything for granted.
“You try to just focus on what lies ahead, and we’ve got to do the best job we can at Homestead. That’s where my focus is.”
"Bad Brad" has matured dramatically since he was afforded the opportunity with JR Motorsports in 2007. Three years later, Keselowski won his first Nationwide Series title for Roger Penske at the age of 26. It was the first NASCAR title of any kind for Penske Racing, a company that has dabbled in stock cars for three decades after an unprecedented tenure of success in open wheel racing.
Despite posting 73 Sprint Cup victories – eight which have been earned by Keselowski in just the last two years – Penske finally has the opportunity to join a very exclusive fraternity next Sunday.
How has the Captain seen Keselowski blossom?
“Right now, what we’re trying to do is establish Brad as a world-class driver,” Penske said. “There’s no question that over the last dozen weeks he’s been outstanding. In racing, Jimmie Johnson is the gold standard. Being able to run with him, I’m not saying we can beat him but at this point we’re very competitive.
“It all comes down to strategy. It’s about the teamwork we have within the team – and Brad has certainly been driving that for us.”
And despite all the champions that Penske Racing has hired over the years to bring the Sprint Cup to the organization, it could be Keselowski who delivers the first title.
Here are 10 other topics to ponder over the next few weeks:
1. If Keselowski wins
Dodge Motorsports’ presence at the Sprint Cup banquet in Las Vegas will be every bit as awkward as crew chief Darian Grubb sitting at the head table with Tony Stewart last year. Yes, Grubb was more gracious than anyone expected him to be and if Stewart has an honest bone in his body, he has certainly second-guessed this decision every time he’s fallen off the lead lap this year. Still, this could be a turning point for Dodge. I still believe the manufacturer will return to NASCAR and maybe as soon as 2014.
2. If Keselowski wins II
Ford Motorsports will have no excuse as to why its cars are not competing for wins week-in and week-out with Keselowski behind the wheel in 2013. That’s not taking anything away from the current talent pool at Roush Fenway Racing, which nearly won the 2011 title. While Carl Edwards’ performance this season is enigmatic, even lame duck Matt Kenseth has won races. The Greg Biffle/Matt Puccia partnership has flourished. On Sunday, Biffle rallied from 25th position and being off the lead lap to finish seventh. The potential is there. It’s time to make it happen.
3. In this corner …
What was more compelling – watching Kevin Harvick’s win or the "Boys, have at it" in the garage? One thing is for certain, when the Throwdown before the Showdown is featured as part of the Today Show’s opening tease, it’s clear the drama meter has been pegged. NASCAR did fine Jeff Gordon Monday for his on-track retaliation against Clint Bowyer, docking him $100,000 and 25 points. As to Brad Keselowski, who issued an honest yet expletive-laced address of Gordon’s move and the hypocrites that questioned his own style of racing in recent weeks, he was simply assessed a monetary fine for having a cell phone in his race car. As Vice President Robin Pemberton suggested at Phoenix, NASCAR apparently did, “Try to put this behind us and go on to Homestead and finish the season off.” A better question for NASCAR might be why the yellow flag wasn’t thrown when Danica Patrick spun on the last lap or why Gordon was black-flagged earlier for limping around the track.
4. Oh silly season …
Last Thursday, Tony Stewart ducked inquiries regarding the reported addition of Kevin Harvick to his 2014 lineup. When his business manager Eddie Jarvis was asked whether adding Harvick to the roster offered Smoke carte blanche to DeLana Harvick’s backside, which he was caught on camera grabbing earlier this year, he just laughed. The Harvick rumor has been a hot topic for the last two months – if not longer. Let’s do the math. Ryan Newman is offered a one-year-take-it-or-leave-it offer at a fraction (sources suggest a figure of 25 percent) of the price Stewart-Haas Racing had offered him over the first four seasons. When Kurt Busch was negotiating his deal with Furniture Row Racing, he pushed for a one-year deal knowing that a seat would be opening at Richard Childress Racing in 2014. And when did Michael Waltrip Racing throw its hat into the Harvick ring? And when did that deal blow up?
At 36, Harvick is no longer the brash young racer with blue sky ahead of him. After forging two serious runs for the title the last two years, he wasn’t even a factor in 2012 despite preseason predictions. Sunday’s victory snapped a 44-race winless streak for a driver who inherited a championship-caliber team 12 years ago. After the win, Harvick cleared the air on 2014 by saying, “We have 2012, we have 2013, and regardless of what happens on a business side of things, Richard Childress and myself will always be friends, good or bad, and may disagree to disagree, but we still have a lot of racing left to do and we owe it to our sponsors and our company to go out and do exactly what we did today and be men and do the best we can for everybody.” Harvick will make a championship run in 2013. And don’t be surprised if Ernie Cope becomes the crew chief for the No 29 team next season.
5. Speaking of Kurt Busch …
His arrival at Furniture Row Racing has brought a level of stability to the organization. In just his fifth start with the team, Busch posted his second straight eighth-place finish – a career-best for FRR. Busch, who qualified sixth, ran as high as fourth before a loose tire forced him re-pit. He dropped back to 25th, off the lead lap. However, Busch soldiered back into the top 10. Despite a sore foot, which was aggravated on the last lap melee, Busch salvaged an eighth-place finish.
6. Musical chairs
Rumors persist concerning possible pit crew changes at Roush Fenway Racing, including swapping the crews of the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth and the No. 99 of Carl Edwards. The organization is dealing with Edwards’ continued stagnation, Kenseth leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing and defending Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. taking over the seat in his car. “This is the time of year for making plans for 2013 – for all of our teams,” team owner Jack Roush said. “I don’t have a comment on that. We’re in discussions. We’re considering a lot of different things. We want to put our best foot forward we can for all three cars, to put rookie championship contention for Ricky and championship contention for both Carl and Greg (Biffle).” Roush added that regardless of the changes between the teams, a new crew chief for Edwards is definitely a possibility. Although it’s been reported repeatedly that Jimmy Fennig would ease Stenhouse into the Cup program, the veteran crew chief is tiring of life on the road.
7. The King’s Court
Richard Petty confirmed on Sunday that both Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola will remain with the organization next year. Petty said an announcement should come out this week.
8. A shout out
To Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for waiting so patiently for the media on Sunday afternoon while everyone was organizing their thoughts. Busch was by far the class of the field on Sunday. He led 237 laps before finishing second after losing the lead to Harvick after the Lap-305 restart. Busch could have left the media center at any point but fulfilled his obligation when neither he nor Hamlin (who led 46 laps) failed to blend in to the bigger storylines.
Jimmie Johnson also proved to be a class act when his day went to dust after blowing a right front tire, causing him to drop to 20 points behind Keselowski. Johnson said after the race, “Anything can happen in racing. I’m very proud of the year, I’m very proud of the effort the entire Lowe’s team has put in, I hate to see it potentially end this way, but again, that’s racing. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve won a few championships and I’ve lost a lot. Losing isn’t any fun, but we’ll be back next weekend and next year hungrier than even and do the best we can.” That’s the mark of a champion, gracious even in defeat.
9. Where are we?
Expect NASCAR to finally release the 2013 Nationwide Series schedule this week – possibly as early as Tuesday. Still waiting on the Truck schedule as well, but multiple sources say Eldora Speedway is expected to be on it and the necessity of a SAFER barrier might not impede the progress.
10. Name dropping
Team owner Steve Turner said on Saturday that Turner Motorsports will also announce its lineup for 2013 this week. Justin Allgaier, James Buescher and a third squad featuring a variety of drivers, including Kasey Kahne, are expected on the Nationwide Series roster. Although Nelson Piquet Jr.’s management team shopped the driver around the Cup and Nationwide garage, it’s very possible he could remain with Turner. Here’s one thing to keep in mind, the Turner Truck at Phoenix on Friday night was driven by Kyle Larson, 20, who finished second six days after winning the K&N Pro Series East title. Turner has also signed 17-year old Dylan Kwasniewski to run for the KNPS East title in 2013. On Saturday night, Kwasniewski became the youngest champion in K&N Pro Series West history after finishing second in the Arizona Casino 50.