Brad Keselowski faces his nemesis once more on Sunday.
No, it’s not Martinsville Speedway, though this is far down his list of tracks where he has a shot at a top finish. No, it’s not Chase for the Sprint Cup contender Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin, though each is hungering to take a chunk – or all – of his points lead Sunday. No, it’s starting deep in the pack for the race once more.
Qualifying hasn’t gone well for the NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader in the Chase races. For the past three races he’s overcome starting deep in the field. But charging from near the rear of the field at Martinsville, a .526-mile track where passing is at best a challenge, poses a new level of problem.
At Kansas last Sunday, Keselowski started 25th and finished eighth. At Charlotte the previous Saturday, he started 20th and finished 11th. And three races ago at Talladega Superspeedway, he started 22nd and finished seventh.
But he’ll start 32nd in the Tums Fast Relief 500 on Sunday. He’ll start half a track behind polesitter Johnson. And he’ll quickly have to worry as much about being lapped as the men around him.
For weeks, critics have pointed to this race as one where Keselowski could stumble. Johnson and Hamlin are stellar here, combining for nine of the last 12 Cup wins at Martinsville.
But don’t count Keselowski out too soon.
First, no one has been as good at digging out of that qualifying hole of late as Keselowski. Second, he’s shown vast improvement with each visit to tracks of late, which has vaulted him into the points lead. And third, he’s the points leader with four races to go before the title is won. Certainly, incentive and momentum could alter his impact on Sunday’s race.
Still, this is shaping up early as the worst of the predictions coming to fruition. Not that’s it all dismal. While he was 27th fastest in Saturday’s first Cup practice he improved dramatically to 13th in the second.
For his part, Keselowski took the poor qualifying effort in stride.
“Certainly would like to qualify better and that’s at the forefront of my mind but I’d much rather race towards the front rather than qualify towards the front if I had to pick between the two,” he said shortly after his effort. “I feel like we’ll be capable of pulling that off once the race gets started. Just ready to keep going, you know, feeling the season wind down and really feel good about our opportunities in front of us.”
Beyond that, Keselowski isn’t buying into the prospect of added pressure this weekend.
He met with the media mere minutes after his lackluster result, and took it all in stride. And while most would argue that Martinsville will be toughest place in which to try to rally back from a setback, he’s not among that crowd.
“I thought last weekend was harder to pass than this weekend will be, to be honest,” he said. “And that’s not to say it’s going to be easy here at Martinsville but there is quite a few more variables that I think work to your favor with strategies and so forth. I feel confident that it’ll work its way out here. Obviously it’s a very, very long race with 500 laps around here. There are a lot of tools in our tool chest to help us recover from that.”
Johnson is significantly less certain that Keselowski can overcome the deficit.
After all, it might not be many laps Sunday before he’s looming on Keselowski’s bumper.
“The tough position there is once you get single file and get about 10 laps into the show the leaders are to the 43rd- place car,” he said. “You have got to go. Everybody around you has that same mentality too so it can be pretty cutthroat back there. The priority is to get going. You have got to get up into the 20’s and get a buffer of cars between you and the leader so that things can kind of spread out and get into a rhythm.”
Hamlin, too, sees Keselowski as being at a large disadvantage Sunday.
"It’s big,” he said. “It will give you a really bad pit selection, which is the biggest key that I notice that will hurt. Ultimately, at the start of races when you start getting into each other, things happen a little bit worse back there because of the chain reaction.
“It takes a little bit longer to get there. That is going to be a challenge. But, we drove from the back to the front here before. Usually if you have a good car, and you don’t get in trouble, it takes your second or third run, you’ll find yourself in the top five."
In fact, both Johnson and Hamlin are cautious when discussing Keselowski’s ability to rally from his start – primarily because each has experience doing the same thing.
While Hamlin failed to finish from his deepest start of 41st, finishing 37th in April 2006, he started 30th in October of 2007 and finished sixth. Johnson, too, has come from outside the top 30. He started 37th in April 2005, finishing eighth. In the spring of this year, he started 22nd and finished 12th.
Does that ability shift, though, with the pressure of the Chase? Keselowski, 28, is in his third year of full-time Cup competition and his second title bid. He’s trying to bring team owner Roger Penske his first Cup title after handing him his first Nationwide title in 2010.
It’s a unique set of circumstances that could, and should, put on the pressure.
Yet Keselowski seems to be calmly handling it all.
“I don’t think he’s going to crack,” said his previous Nationwide Series team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I think he’s going to be hard to beat. I think he will be a tough competitor all the way through. Brad has been waiting on this opportunity all his life so I don’t expect him to crack under the pressure. I think he will be tough.”
So do the men he’s battling for the title.
Keselowski certainly knows the legacy of the men in the heart of the hunt. Five-time Cup champion Johnson is just seven points back. Veteran Chase contender – and 2010 series runner-up – Hamlin is 20 off the pace.
While he certainly respects his contenders, he doesn’t necessarily see that as making them favorites when the heat is on in this final stretch – no matter how much ground he’ll need to overcome Sunday.
“I feel like the people that have all the odds in their favor have earned it because they have been here and achieved success,” Keselowski said. “Obviously we have not, so you know that justifies that in my mind. But you know, at some point the torch has to be passed. It’s just a question of when.”