NASCAR

Can Keselowski win at Charlotte?

Watch Hamlin's qualifying lap.
Watch Hamlin's qualifying lap.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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CONCORD, N.C.

Brad Keselowski is down in the wins category, but the defending Sprint Cup champion is far from out.

With one-third of the season already in the record books, it’s hard to believe that Keselowski, who had two victories in the first 10 races last year, has yet to win.

However, he hopes that might change on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’d like to have one, and I feel like this is the week to get it done,” Keselowski said. “I feel like we’ve been very, very fast and very under the radar because we haven’t, one, qualified well, or, two, executed in the race. I think if you sat in my right-side seat, which I know there isn’t one, but if there was a right-side seat in my car and you rode with me through the last two or three mile-and-a-halves, you’d go, ‘Damn, we’re the fastest car out here.’

“Unfortunately, we haven’t produced those results and that’s on us to get right. There are a number of reasons for that. I’m not gonna sit here and make excuses, but I know the speed is there and speed is building-block one of winning the race, and then you obviously have to have execution and luck and we haven’t put two and three together to really build the house that it takes to win. I feel like this weekend, along with any other weekend, could be that chance and that opportunity.”

Keselowski has two Nationwide Series wins at Charlotte but he’s never visited Victory Lane at the 1.5-mile track in a Cup car. His best effort was fifth here last year.

And yes, there have been obstacles for Keselowski in 2013 — most noticeably the absence of his crew chief Paul Wolfe along with the car chief and team engineer on the No. 2 Ford for the last two weeks. Although substitute crew chief Kevin Buskirk performed admirably in Wolfe’s absence, Keselowski still finished a career low 32nd at Darlington.

Although there were no points on the line in the All-Star race, last Saturday night’s effort was no better. Keselowski lasted just two laps before his driveshaft broke. Certainly, the track time would have benefited both Keselowski and the Brew Crew in anticipation of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

“I’d love to just start on the pole and lead every lap, but that’s not realistic either,” Keselowski said. “You have to be in position. You have to have the speed. It wouldn’t bother me if I started 43rd come Sunday knowing I have as fast a race car as I’ve had over the last few weeks because I feel that confident that if we can just execute, we could overcome that deficit.”

Keselowski won’t have to worry about starting last on Sunday after qualifying 20th on Thursday night. But he will have to battle his way through half the pack. With 600 miles to settle the Coca-Cola 600, there will be plenty of opportunity for Keselowski to race his way through the field. The key will be to pace himself and remain patient through 400 laps.

“You can’t win the race at mile marker 300, but you can sure as heck lose it in those segments — whether that’s blowing through your pit stop and having a loose wheel, or any of those things,” Keselowski said. “So you can’t win it in those segments, but you can definitely lose it — missing a shift, blowing a tire — anything like that.

TOP GUNS

Catch all the action from the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race weekend. PHOTOS.

“So at some point you have to put yourself into that protection mode of, ‘Hey, I need to just get through this segment of the race and not lose it right here,’ which isn’t all that much fun for me personally. I’d much rather play offense than defense.”

Until last Saturday, Keselowski had been stellar on intermediate tracks. In three earlier starts this season his average finish was sixth. But the driver acknowledges that in the advent of the Generation 6 cars, there’s still a lot to learn.

“We’ve got a dozen races or so under our belt, but this track has always been a bit unique, specifically the 600 with the transition from daytime to nighttime and different cars and comers and goers and so forth,” Keselowski said. “So that lends itself to more passing, whether or not that will work out to create the type of finish that fans want, I couldn’t tell you. That’s why you have to watch. Some races it might and others it won’t, but I think this track has produced some compelling races.”

RESTED AND REFRESHED

Denny Hamlin promised to make the most of his time away from the car.

After he fractured his back at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin was sidelined for the next five weeks — though he started Talladega before Brian Vickers relieved him at the first pit stop.

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But it offered the Joe Gibbs Racing driver the opportunity to learn — and listen while watching the races and “a lot of different driving styles” from the pit box.

With the benefit of qualifying 40th, Hamlin had time to watch and listen to the laps of the drivers that preceded him. For Hamlin, who posted his 14th career pole on Thursday with a lap of 195.624 mph, the use of those resources was key to securing the top speed.

"I knew I had to try and do everything I could, the way our car drove I didn't think it was that fast when I was actually making the lap,” Hamlin said. “I just sat in turn one with 10 cars to go and just kind of closed my eyes and listened to each car go by and listened to what they were doing with their throttle and look at the board and see where they ended up.

“I took all that information and kind of put together what I thought it was going to take to run the fastest lap. We put it all together and it's hard work and it pays off — all that's good."

JUST A SMIDGE

Kurt Busch barely missed posting back-to-back poles on Thursday night.

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Busch broke the 195-mile-per-hour barrier by 0.221mph, but with a better qualifying draw, Denny Hamlin was able to top him.

“I threw away some time in (turns) three and four,” Busch said. “I didn’t do my job. This team is on it. Todd Berrier (crew chief) has got these guys lined up. Everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction and each week they keep bringing car after car after car that is fast to the race track. I’m really proud of these guys.”

Busch has enjoyed success at Charlotte in the past. In 2010, he led a career-high 252 laps before winning the 600. After a solid run on Saturday night, Busch won two of the four segments in the All-Star race before finishing fifth.

Still, Busch doesn’t want to make an early call on Sunday.

“We will come back on Saturday and hit it hard,” Busch said. “We have three hours of practice, but we have to keep our miles limited because it is a 600-mile race. I haven’t even gotten into race trim yet, but we know we’ve got some good things going right now.”

NUMBERS GAME

8 Drivers broke the track record of 193.708 mph set by Greg Biffle last October.
4 Toyota drivers qualified in the top five for the Coca Cola 600
7 Qualifying records have been set this season — Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Richmond, Darlington and Charlotte

SAY WHAT?

After breaking the track qualifying record with a lap of 195.624 mph, pole sitter Denny Hamlin said, “It takes so much nerve to do it but you can’t do it without a fast car.”

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski

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