LOUDON, N.H. (AP) Denny Hamlin once called his shot at New Hampshire, guaranteeing a win with a tweet, then following through with a mighty swing of an invisible baseball bat moments after taking the checkered flag.
Any bold boasts this weekend?
He’ll keep his bat on his shoulder and take the pitch this time up.
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Brad Keselowski is taking his cuts these days as NASCAR’s heavy hitter, taking his first career two-race winning streak into New Hampshire. Keselowski has stamped himself as the early favorite to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
”Somehow my car disappeared,” Hamlin said, ”and it’s got a 2 on the side of it now.”
Keselowski won at Richmond International Speedway, the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway and is the 4-1 favorite to win Sunday at New Hampshire.
The 2012 NASCAR champion is rolling and he’s at the right track to make it 3 for 3: Keselowski swept the Nationwide and Cup races in July at New Hampshire. About the only thing working against him is the quirky fact that New Hampshire has had 13 straight different winners.
He can join Greg Biffle (2008), Tony Stewart (2011) and Matt Kenseth (2013) as the only drivers to win the first two Chase races.
Keselowski will start his run at three straight wins from the front, taking the pole Friday with a track-record run of 140.598 mph.
Keselowski keeps pilling up wins and has proved he may be even better than he was during the 2012 championship run. His best may still be ahead.
”Looking through the first six Chase races, we’ve won in the last two years at every one of them,” Keselowski said. ”So in that sense, I’m as comfortable as you can be.”
The Team Penske driver has even more reason to feel cozy in the No. 2 Ford.
His win in the Chase opener guaranteed him a spot in the next round of the Chase. He joked after his win he would pop open some beers and enjoy the next two weeks. Keselowski used a daring three-wide drive through the middle of a Kevin Harvick-Kyle Larson duel to grab the lead for good.
This year, NASCAR began an elimination format, and four drivers will be knocked out after every third race. Keselowski is the top seed in the 16-driver field.
”We’ve got two races to, I don’t want to say goof off, but with no consequences and that’s enjoyable,” he said. ”Everybody loves it when all you can do is win. It’s like getting a free lottery ticket.”
One more sign he may have hit the jackpot: Keselowski won the Chase opener at Chicagoland in 2012, then won the title.
Keselowski wasn’t quite an unknown when he won it all in 2012, but he certainly didn’t boast the resume of former champs like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. The game has changed this time around. Keselowski is easily in the mix as one of the handful of drivers who have a legitimate chance at winning the Chase.
”We’re at the second race in the Chase and we’re receiving the level of attention we received in 2012 in probably the seventh or eighth race of the Chase,” he said. ”It’s not different in the sense of the attention, it’s different because it’s so early and I know that we have so much farther to go and so much more work to do. In that sense, it’s a compliment, but it’s kind of scary because you don’t want to get overinflated as a team and think you’ve done what you needed to do when there’s so much work left to be done.”
Now a series-leading five-time winner this season, he can race for fun the next two weeks as he awaits the Chase reset following the Sept. 28 race at Dover – when the field will be cut to 12 drivers.
Keselowski won the July race at the Loudon in dominating fashion, leading 138 of the 305 laps. He looks to become the first driver to sweep the track since Kurt Busch in 2004 (Busch won the series championship that season).
With two ”free” races to play with, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe can tinker with the No. 2. Maybe try a new piece or pit strategy. Try and find something that will give them an edge for the next round.
”I don’t see any crazy ideas because you want to stay in a rhythm and work with the pieces you know and not get lost,” Keselowski said.
Many have believed all year the championship would come down to Hendrick Motorsports vs. Penske, and Penske will have to show that its two-car organization can stand up against the Hendrick heavyweights of Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and even Kasey Kahne.
Gordon is second, Earnhardt fifth and Johnson sixth. Kahne is 10th. Joey Logano, Keselowski’s teammate at Penske, is third.
”We’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car,” Johnson, a six-time champion, said. ”But truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car. We still have nine weeks to get our act together; especially the way this Chase lays out.”