Brad Keselowski, the defending winner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Pennsylvania 400, will have an advantage this weekend — both ankles in working order.
“That doesn’t hurt,” Keselowski said.
A year ago, Keselowski went to Pocono Raceway just days after being airlifted out of Road Atlanta following a violent wreck during testing that resulted in a fracture of his left ankle. Not only did Keselowski refuse to let another driver substitute in his No. 2 Miller Dodge for the Pocono race, he wouldn’t allow anyone to practice in his car.
“I’m going to drive this car until they drag me out of it,” Keselowski told FOXSports.com last August at Pocono. “They’re not getting me out of this damn car.”
Keselowski made the right call. He was 21st in the points standings before that race at Pocono. He qualified 13th and picked up his third career win. More important, he got a courage boost that carried over.
With crew chief Paul Wolfe and the team’s support, Keselowski went on a remarkable six-race run that included two victories, four top-five and five top-10 finishes to elevate the team 12 positions before the Chase for the Sprint Cup began. He finished 2012 a career-high fifth in the points standings.
No doubt, the Pocono win was the turning point in his season. While Keselowski experienced ignition issues in June and finished 18th, he would like the opportunity Sunday in the Pennsylvania 400 to repeat his winning ways from last August.
“We have the potential to run well, maybe sneak out another win like we did last year so we’ll give it our best,” Keselowski said this week during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We have a brand-new car which I’m really excited about, and I think we have a strong shot at it.
“We need to qualify better. That’s been one of our weaknesses over the last couple of months here, but our cars in race trim have been very fast and I’m proud of that, as well.”
Indeed, Keselowski has set a record pace this year. Along with Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski has recorded a season-high three Sprint Cup wins — which will serve him well when the points standings are recalculated for the Chase.
Keselowski says he and Wolfe have no special strategy for the Chase.
“We both know what we need to do,” Keselowski said. “And we’re already there. We just have to put together 10 solid races, with no mistakes. Run the best we can. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself.”
However, Keselowski will be at a disadvantage for the final 10 races since he doesn’t have a teammate in the Chase. With the release of AJ Allmendinger this week, Keselowski will have to rely on the support of a squad that has a first-time crew chief, Todd Gordon, and a substitute driver, Sam Hornish Jr., who wasn’t successful the first time he attempted the Cup series.
Still, Keselowski would appreciate the opportunity to offer input to team owner Roger Penske in choosing the new driver for the No. 22 Ford when the time comes.
“I’d like to be involved because a teammate is very important to the overall success of Penske Racing, specifically how we work together to evolve as a team,” Keselowski said. “Hopefully it will play out that way. But time will tell.”
Recently, Keselowski has taken heat for his restarts, particularly after an incident in the inaugural Nationwide Series race at the Brickyard last Saturday, which drew Elliott Sadler to the line prematurely. Keselowski’s car stalled after Hornish jacked Keselowski’s back wheels off the ground after making contact. Consequently, Sadler was black-flagged for beating Keselowski, who was the leader at the time, to the start-finish line.
Keselowski believes restarts are just part of a driver’s arsenal of tricks to gain an advantage over the competition.
“I tell the fans, restarts for a driver is like playing rock, paper, scissors,” Keselowski said. “I’m serious. This is how it works, because every move you make — there are only about three restarts you can pull — you can be very aggressive on a restart, you can be very conservative or you can just be kind of average. But for each one, the second place has another move or a counter move to defeat you.
“If you pull out a rock, he’s got paper. If you pull out scissors, he’s got the rock and so forth. Picking which kind of tactic you want to use can be difficult, and you have to switch them up, and obviously if you pick the wrong one, you get beat. In that particular instance, I put on a conservative restart, which is my right within the rules. And he put on an aggressive restart, which is his right — to an extent — until he beats me. Then it’s his responsibility to match that.”
Keselowski sympathizes with Sadler’s situation, but he was just doing “his job,” which inevitably led to his 20th career Nationwide Series win. Although Keselowski and the other drivers were warned by NASCAR before the Sprint Cup race Sunday, the driver says he’ll continue to work within the rules for the greatest reward.
“If I narrow my margin down to every game of rock, paper, scissors and only use a rock or scissors,” Keselowski said, “I’ll get beat more often than if I use all three.”
Practice makes perfect
Road courses have never been the strength of current Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In 13 starts at Sonoma, his best career finish is 11th. Earnhardt’s 23rd-place finish on the circuit in June was by far his worst finish of the season.
“With me and a road course, it’s a lottery,” Junior joked.
But seriously, his results at Watkins Glen — where the Sprint Cup tour travels next weekend — have been just marginally better. Although Earnhardt scored two top-five finishes earlier in his career, he hasn’t posted a top-10 finish on the 2.45-mile road course since 2005.
“I’ve had some good runs there and had some fast cars there.,” Earnhardt said. “When we went there in 2008 with (then crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. we rained out qualifying so we started up front and we led quite a good portion, the first 30 laps or so. We were really fast.
“I know I can go around there. That place is a lot easier than Sonoma. It’s just straightaway, turn, straightaway, turn and that’s really what I’ve been doing all my life. It’s a lot easier than Sonoma, a lot less technical.”
Still, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte agreed a little more seat time on a road course couldn’t hurt. So the team tested at Road Atlanta on Wednesday, their second visit to that circuit this year.
“The gains that we made this week, they were literally gains that I could see on the stopwatch and on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “I know I didn’t like the car when we tested at Road Atlanta earlier this year. When we went to Sonoma I had the same issues with the car, I didn’t like it. We fought a lot of similar problems.
“We showed up at the test this week with the same problems and the same disappointment with the car and then we made a lot of changes and a few of them changes in particular revolutionized the way the car drove and the way it felt. The stopwatch was way faster, so I’m excited. I’ve been real happy to go to all the racetracks this year. I particularly don’t look forward to going to Sonoma and Watkins Glen as much as I do the ovals, but I’m excited about Watkins Glen this trip. Hopefully we can go down there and be competitive.”
5: Career wins at Pocono — the most among current Sprint Cup drivers.
8.8: Highest average finish by a Cup driver (Jimmie Johnson) at Pocono.
187: Starts without a win for Martin Truex Jr., who is currently seventh in the points standings.
Carl Edwards on AJ Allmendinger’s enrollment in the Road to Recovery prgoram: "From my limited interaction with AJ . . . he seems like a very mentally tough guy that can deal with things pretty well. I have sat in a lot of meetings with him, been on the racetrack with him a lot, and I think that as a racer he is a very fast racer. I don’t know him personally very well, but it seems like if anybody could come back from it, it seems like he could do it. He is a young guy with a lot of enthusiasm and huge talent. I wish him the best.”