For Penske Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, these are promising and perilous times to be in the Irish Hills of Michigan, team owner Roger Penske’s backyard.
On the one hand, Keselowski, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is back in the top 10 in points and teammate Logano is on the pole for tomorrow’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, the track Penske used to own.
The flip side is that neither driver has a victory so far this season, Logano is 16th in points and Keselowski is only 11 points away from being outside the top 10 with just four races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
It’s not quite one of those best-of-times-worst-of-times deals, but it’s not far removed, either.
There’s an awful lot on the line for Keselowski and Logano at MIS this weekend, with a razor-thin margin for error.
“It isn’t like we weren’t trying before. It is just, obviously, we are down to the wire,” Keselowski said Friday after qualifying ninth for Sunday’s race. “You don’t have a lot of opportunities or wiggle room to screw up and recover from it. I think that is the biggest difference. I am not going to approach it any differently. You know your mistakes are magnified at this point in the season.”
Keselowski’s season can best described as erratic.
He opened his championship defense on a high note, finishing third or fourth in each of the first four races, and posting seven top 10s in the first eight races.
In the next 10 races, Keselowski finished better than 12th just once, running fifth at Dover in June.
Lately, he’s picked it up again, coming home second to Kyle Busch last weekend at Watkins Glen for his third top-six run in the most recent four races. Keselowski could be on the verge of another lengthy hot streak like the one he posted in 2011 to race his way into the Chase.
Asked if he has the pace he needs to mount another title run, Keselowski was cautiously optimistic.
“Well, I did last year and I think I do again this year,” he said. “I think we do, not just me. I think we do. Obviously, we have hit a spot that wasn’t favorable the last few months, but I think that over the last few weeks we have shown something.”
As for Logano, he thinks he’ll have to win two of the next four races to make the Chase. He was 10th in points after the Kentucky race in June, but had two disastrous races after that, as tire failures at Daytona and New Hampshire left him 40th in consecutive races.
“One win is not going to be enough right now,” said Logano. “You have to have a win and points or two wins. We have four races left. We are coming off a streak of three top-10s, and I feel like the streak we had before, that of like six before our flat tire issues, was even stronger. The momentum is behind us. We have been solid through the season and there is no doubt in my mind we should be like fifth in points right now, but the case is that we are not and we will keep working to get into the Chase.”
Whether he makes the Chase or not, Logano is in good position to have the best season of his still-young career.
“We are a Chase-caliber team and I feel like even a championship-caliber team,” said Logano. “We keep making our race cars faster. I am excited about that fact, but I really want to get in the Chase, and we have our work cut out for us right now. By no means are we out of it. I feel like we have a good shot and I like our chances to do it. We are one bad race from saying we are out, though.”