‘Bad’ Brad Keselowski is ‘Good’ at Richmond

Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Team Penske crew had a near-perfect night at Richmond International Raceway, sending a message to the field headed into the Chase. 

Brian Lawdermilk

Remember how it wasn’t that long ago that Brad Keselowski had the nickname "Bad Brad?" At the time I think everyone would agree that it fit. Well Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, Brad was once again bad — bad to the bone. The driver, the crew chief and the team were simply flawless.

The young man led 383 of 400 laps Saturday night. That’s simply a remarkable, dominating performance considering the competition he was up against. It gave car owner Roger Penske his 400th racing win and I know it meant a lot to Brad and Team Penske to be able to deliver that to Roger. It was another win for Ford. Brad also won from the pole, so it was just a really special Saturday night under the lights for that organization.

Brad’s timing was perfect. Saturday night’s race was the end of the NASCAR regular season. It was Brad’s fourth win in 2014. Due to the Chase bonus points for those four wins, Brad will start at the top of the 16-car Chase field.

Even though Jeff Gordon finished second Saturday night and has been red-hot of late, Team Penske has to be a big concern for Hendrick Motorsports as the Chase starts at Chicago this weekend. So right now it seems to be shaping up for a Brad and teammate Joey Logano battle versus Jeff Gordon and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the championship.

True, Jimmie Johnson has made a nice recovery of late but I think everyone is really curious to see if he and crew chief Chad Knaus have any Chase luck still up their sleeve. We’ve seen them do it time and time again, ok, well six championship times to be exact. Is there any Chase magic left, though, for a record-tying seventh championship?

I was somewhat surprised seeing Jimmie suffering from dehydration after the race and having to be taken to the Infield Care Center. We’ve all experienced it, maybe not while the race is going on, but definitely afterwards when we step out of the car. I was just somewhat surprised to see one of the best athletes in our sport get out of the car and have an issue that took him to the Infield Care Center. Thankfully after they got some fluids in Jimmie he was fine and will be good-to-go at Chicago.

So back to Brad, who is entering as the top driver in the Chase. He and that team are clearly on a mission. In 2013 he was our defending champion and didn’t even make the Chase so he never got a chance to defend his title. I think it’s pretty clear they have used that embarrassment of 2013 as fuel to push them forward to get back to the top and right now they clearly are there.

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I look for both Team Penske cars and the four cars from Hendrick Motorsportst to be tough this weekend. Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing will be fast just like he has been every weekend, so you better keep your eye on him, too. I actually thought that the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas had made a bit of a rebound, but we sure didn’t see it Saturday night.

Chicago this weekend is a mile-and-a-half track. The Gibbs cars and the Roush-Fenway cars have struggled all season at these type tracks so that’s why I think you need to be looking at Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Kevin Harvick to lead the way again.

I know there was all the hype around this Richmond race with the two slots still up for grabs at the time but we never really saw it play out of coming down to the wire as expect. I really wasn’t that surprised. I am not sure if you follow me on Twitter @allwaltrip but I had said before the race that it would be dominated by one guy.

I believed it would happen Saturday night based on a couple factors. The first one obviously was Kyle Busch in the Nationwide race at Richmond Friday night lead it flag-to-flag. Kyle won the pole and then led 250 of 250 laps.

I just know from experience that when Goodyear changes a tire and if it’s a very drastic change, then it changes everything you do on your setup of the car. Some drivers, crew chiefs and teams get their arms around it right away while others struggle to catch up. When I saw what happened Friday night with Kyle, well that was a major indicator to me that we might see it happen again Saturday night just like we did.

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Obviously Brad and crew chief Paul Wolfe knew exactly what they needed to do to make their car turn because they clearly were the class of the field Saturday night. I just felt it was coming. Naturally I didn’t know who or how many teams would get their arms around it, but it was clear there were only a few that did with Brad being even that much better than the few.

You have heard me repeatedly over the 2014 season tell you that downforce is a driver’s best friend. It is hands down. It’s just simple physics because the more downforce you put on a car, the harder you can drive it. The car is simply going to stay under you because it’s stuck to the race track.  The more downforce you put on a car allows you to race closer to each other because the car is stable.

It’s the same thing with tires. When the tires go away, naturally your car becomes harder to handle as it begins to slip and slid more. Oh sure, you can run fine by yourself but you can’t run well around other cars. It’s just common sense that when you are on a race track by yourself then you can get away with a lot of things. It’s when you put 43 cars around each other that you have to have downforce and you have to have grip.

I tell you all this because I keep scratching my head and can’t get my arms around some of the complaints I am hearing from some of these drivers. I hear them talking about wanting tires that fall off, less downforce and want their cars slipping and sliding. HUH?

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This is another one of those times — trust me I know from painful experience — when the drivers that are saying this better be careful for what they wish for. What you saw Saturday night was just a little taste of that. Sure they still had downforce but they had tires that fell off and we all saw the outcome.

That’s why I am a little confused when I hear some of these drivers spouting off about what they think these cars need. You would be very wise to leave them alone. Leave the downforce, the tires and the motors alone. Let these drivers race with what they have now. The racing was a lot better when you didn’t mess with things, because once you start tinkering or changes things the advantage falls to the teams with the most money and the best engineers.

The racing is better when you leave it consistent week in and week out. Everyone will figure it out and catch up eventually. To me Saturday night was a perfect example of what you are going to get when you start monkeying with the tires. The proof is in Friday and Saturday nights races at Richmond. Again, Kyle Busch led 250 of 250 laps Friday night for the win while Brad Keselowski led 383 of 400 laps on his way to his fourth win on Saturday night.

I’m sorry but a date on a calendar is not the magic wand that is going to make your team better. If you have been a struggling race team and hadn’t made it into the Chase, just because Richmond was the last race before the Chase started doesn’t magically make your program better. With rare exception, what you have done in the first 25 races is probably going to be how you are going to do in race 26.

Now, with that said, we head to Chicago for the start of the newly formatted 2014 Chase. There’s a big unknown that none of us can answer. I still look for the same drivers that have been fast all season to be fast in the Chase. What is different and a new factor that until we run it this year, we really don’t know how it will play out is the elimination process as the Chase progresses.

I think because it’s new and we have such an unknown, I think 2014 is going to be one of the best Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cups our sport has ever seen. Remember, it all comes down to Homestead, the final race of the year, in mid-November. We start this weekend in Chicago with 16 drivers having a shot. Remember, though, with this new elimination process, that come the green flag at Homestead there will only be four drivers remaining with a chance to be our champion.

So there is a lot to look forward to in these next 10 weeks. Again, I still look for both Penske cars, a couple Hendrick cars and Kevin Harvick to come out of the box fast, but can they sustain it? Is there someone in that field of 16 that will be like Tony Stewart in 2011, even though under a different format, that will get hot at the right time and shock the NASCAR world by coming out of no where to win the Chase?  I simply don’t know. What I do know is it’s going to be exciting to see how this new format plays out for the very first time and it all starts this weekend at Chicago.