Keselowski wins breathing room

Brad Keselowski is “looking forward.”

He can afford to now after earning his third victory of 2012, a win that should make him a lock for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Keselowski used the Truck and Nationwide series races at Kentucky Speedway this weekend as the warm-up acts prior to the main event Saturday night. Having finished second in the Truck race Thursday and seventh in Nationwide Friday, he took the knowledge he gained in those races and used it to dominate and win when the points counted — in Sprint Cup Saturday night.

The weekend was anything but easy for his No. 2 Penske Racing team. After an encounter with Juan Pablo Montoya on the first lap of practice Friday and then a second incident in the Happy Hour practice, Keselowski’s crew had to pull together to prepare the backup car in time for qualifying.

Keselowski took responsibility for his actions and chipped in on the repair job.

“Who would have figured my best finish would have come in the hardest race,” Keselowski said. “But that just shows the importance of teamwork, and the group of guys that I have on this Miller Lite Dodge that are just (tough guys). They are. …

“They put together a backup car from last year in 100-degree heat in an hour’s time — not even an hour. It was like 40 minutes. I wish I had a stopwatch for that. Got it on the racetrack and got to run our laps for practice to make the adjustments we needed to be fast today.

“… and that’s what got us to Victory Lane today, and I’m proud of these guys for it. I’m proud of them. Damn proud of them. I think that sums it up.”

Keselowski took the backup car and qualified eighth on Friday. On Saturday, he remained in striking distance throughout the race as the crew made the necessary adjustments to keep him in contention.

He made his last stop for fuel on Lap 207, took advantage of the 10-lap caution and grabbed the point for the restart when 14 cars from the lead lap stopped for a splash of gas for the finish.

Keselowski was thrilled with his position for what he hoped would be the final run in the race.

"Clean air, air condition, you don’t get anything better than this," Keselowski radioed to his team. Spotter Joey Meier replied, “I’ve got something that will make it better in about 53 laps.”

No one could challenge Keselowski after the race went green. He led the final 56 laps in what crew chief Paul Wolfe described as “the hardest we had to work yet and we did a great job.

“Having trouble on the first lap of the racetrack always sets you back. One thing about all the guys on the Miller Lite team is it seems like we’re able to find another level to work when it comes to adversity.

“I think you see that with the driver as well as you look back to last summer when ‘Bad Brad’ had a broken foot and we were able to take that and I don’t know if he thrives off of that or what, but it seems like when some people might think we’re down and out, we’re able to find a whole other level to compete and find ourselves in Victory Lane.”

So with three wins for insurance — more than any other driver on the tour — Keselowski can afford to look ahead to the Chase for the Sprint Cup and concentrate on maintaining his position in the top 10 in the points standings. He insists the number of points “don’t mean anything.” The only thing that matters is where the teams are seeded when the Chase begins for the final 10 races.

“That’s going to be based off of who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins,” Keselowski said. “That is the only thing that matters. That’s where my heart’s at, and that’s what I want. I want to be the guy with the most wins and inside the top 10, and I want to look forward to making sure that we stay inside the top 10 and hopefully can climb up a few more spots to be safe. But wins and being in the top 10, that’s all that matters.”

This team’s resolve and ability to persevere could also propel them to the head table at the Sprint Cup banquet come December.

Losing patience

Most drivers would be thrilled with a fourth-place finish.

But after a two-race losing streak, Dale Earnhardt Jr., wants to take the No. 88 Chevrolet back to Victory Lane as soon as possible.

“I ain’t going to be as patient this time," he said.

Earnhardt qualified seventh and remained in the top 10 throughout most of the race despite the team dropping a lugnut on a green-flag stop and the decision to make a combination of both four- and two-tire stops. Regardless of the adjustments, his car became increasingly loose as the track cooled down, particularly over the final 30 laps, which he acknowledged was not “a whole lot of fun.” Still, he considered the result a “good night.”

“We were fast and good all weekend,” said Earnhardt, who moved back to second in the points standings. “It was a good weekend for us. We would have loved to have had a little better shot at it at the end. We had a good race car with the run before last; but for some reason it got really loose at the end.”

The reward of winning at Michigan International Speedway recently gave Earnhardt Jr. a good sense of just how long his 143-race losing streak really felt. But the driver realizes what lies ahead.

“I’m just proud of the team,” Earnhardt said. “I just hope we can keep it up. We’re real proud of how we’re doing so far and we’d like to win another race."

Junior’s teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and sixth, respectively, placing all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top 10 for the Quaker State 400 — a long-time sponsor for team owner Rick Hendrick.

“Junior is on a roll,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He had a good night, we’re real proud of him. It’s been a good night all around.”

Shocking finish

Kyle Busch dominated Saturday’s race by leading five times for 118 laps. But he didn’t anticipate running out of gas or a broken shock.

Still, after two engine failures followed by more motor problems at Michigan over the last four races, Busch wasn’t going to let a little mechanical issue ruin his night. Busch warned the crew he had a shock issue on Lap 190. But he kept wheeling the No. 18 Toyota over the next 20 laps until the race had a caution period during which the team could make major repairs.

By then, Busch had dropped to 15th. He lost three spots in the pits, but had ample time to refuel. Busch restarted 18th for the final 47 laps and salvaged a top-10 finish. Busch also remained 12th in the points standings and is the top driver in the battle for the wild-card berth with nine races remaining until the Chase.

Numbers game

11: Point advantage for leader Matt Kenseth over Dale Earnhardt Jr.

37: Races that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have been running at the finish — a series best.

43: Points separate Denny Hamlin, who is fifth in the standings, from fourth-place Greg Biffle

Say what?

Carl Edwards gambled, hoping for a caution on the last run and opted for track position over fuel for the final green run. He was bitten by the strategy and forced to pit for gas with four laps remaining in the race and dropped from fifth to 20th at the finish.

“It is time for us to get it in gear,” said Edwards, who is currently 11th in the points standings. “I am real frustrated, (crew chief) Bob (Osborne) is real frustrated and I know we can do this. We ran as well as any Ford out here tonight. At the end, I think with some fuel we would have had a chance to win it. … we need to get this in gear. We need to go.”

Say what, Part II

Without warning, Tony Stewart experienced issues with his ignition system early in Saturday’s race that ruined his night.

“I’m so (expletive) appreciative of our electronic ignition,” Stewart said while sitting idle. “It’s a great … idea.”

On Lap 26, Stewart pitted and was forced to the garage as the team needed to reset the computer and change the throttle body. Although he attempted to return to action on Lap 44, Stewart radioed his team, “Didn’t fix it.” He returned to the garage for a new fuel cell. Stewart’s quest resumed on Lap 60, but he was 33 laps off the pace and 41st in the field. He completed the remaining laps, finished 32nd and dropped from fifth to ninth in the standings.