Other drivers watch Keselowski closely

BY Larry McReynolds • August 29, 2011

After another NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, which came Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski’s simply amazing summer stretch continues.

A lot of the fans have been asking if maybe Keselowski is peaking too soon and won’t have anything left in the tank once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in three weeks.

I don’t believe so. That team is simply doing what they have to do right now. You have to remember that it wasn’t that many races ago where the Penske Racing team wasn't even in position to make the Chase. Yes, Keselowski had won at Kansas Speedway back in early June, but because he was still outside the top 20 in points, he wasn’t eligible for the two wild-card spots reserved for drivers with victories and between 11th and 20th in the standings.

My, how things have changed for the better this summer. Now Keselowski has three wins. He is a lock to be in the 2011 Chase. The bigger question now becomes, with two races to go, will he be in the Chase through one of the wild-card spots or will he be in the top 10 in points?

There are a lot of ramifications for a lot of other teams based on what Keselowski does these next two races.

You have two drivers — Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer — who are hoping Keselowski does not get into the top 10 in points.

Unfortunately for both those drivers, they couldn’t have had a worse weekend at the worse time than they did Saturday night at Bristol. Stewart is barely hanging onto the top 10 and still doesn’t have a win. Bowyer dropped to 12th in the points and also does not have a win, so he is at high risk of missing the 2011 Chase.

Then there are two guys — Paul Menard and David Ragan — who are the biggest Brad Keselowski fans you have ever met. They need him to move into the top 10 in points because, as it stands right now, one of them could take over the remaining wild-card spot that Keselowski would vacate.

Then there actually are the other guys who are already locked into the Chase who  are hoping Keselowski doesn’t get into the top 10.

The reason for that is bonus points. Drivers who are in the top 10 when the Chase field is set after the race at Richmond on Sept. 10, get bonus points for each win they accumulated during the regular season to start the Chase. However, the two drivers who make the Chase via the wild-card spots do not receive any bonus points for their wins.

So if Keselowski were to make it into the top 10 in points, as it stands right now, he would be tied for second with the most bonus points with Kevin Harvick, who also has three wins. Naturally, Kyle Busch has the most bonus points. His four wins so far will generate him 12 bonus points.

With the way Keselowski is running so well and, unfortunately the way Stewart is running as poorly as he is right now, I do think Brad could make up the distance in points and make it into the top 10 in the two races before the Chase field is set. Actually, as hot as Keselowski and his No. 2 team are right now, there is no reason to think they couldn’t win the races at Atlanta and Richmond.

Up until the May race at Darlington Raceway, when they used strategy to get a top-five finish, that No. 2 car for all intents and purposes, was an also-ran. That team maybe got a mention here and there. After that, they won the pole in Charlotte in May. Then, as everyone knows, they have had a summer stretch that has been unbelievable.

If you look at their first 12 races in 2011, and then their past 12 races, you would probably be scratching your head asking if maybe they changed drivers, teams or the crew chief.

What in the world did they change? Now, I can’t sit here and tell you that in all my years in NASCAR that this is the most remarkable recovery I have seen in a 24-race stretch, but, golly, it is pretty darn close to it.

It has also sent a very powerful signal to the guys in the top 10 that Keselowski is going to be a serious contender for the championship. From what I am seeing and feeling from that team, I do not in any way shape or form see that team being an also-ran once those 10 Chase races begin following the Richmond event.

Looking back at Bristol for a minute, it probably wasn’t a normal Bristol race. We did have a fair amount of lead changes, but there were only six cautions. The most enlightening thing I took away from the race was the fans. When you compare the crowd Saturday night to when we were there back in March, it was an unbelievable crowd Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

You have to feel good for Martin Truex Jr. His team got its best finish of the season, coming home second behind Keselowski. The team did it with some strategy, and that was a good run. I was also very happy for Jamie McMurray and his team. While they qualified well, they were a little off in the early part of the race.

They didn’t give up and made some major changes to the car all night long. When the checkered flag waved, they were able to get their second top-five finish of the year. Unfortunately, like Truex, McMurray and his team aren’t going to make the 2011 Chase.

We all know that in three weeks the Chase begins at Chicago and that once it begins all the attention is going to be paid to those 12 Chase drivers. That’s the way it should be because at the end of those 10 Chase races, one of those guys is going to be our 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

Guys like Truex, McMurray and others are concentrating on not only finishing 2011 strong, but getting things moving in the right direction for 2012. They want to make some noise yet this year. I hope they do. While I totally understand it, I am not totally committed to the idea that the last 10 races should focus only on those 12 Chase drivers.

The other dynamic that can’t be ignored is if any non-Chase driver happened to get on a hot streak the rest of the year, they can make life difficult for Chase drivers.

Let’s face it, a non-Chase racer that performs and finishes well each week is taking available and valuable points off the board that a Chase racer desperately needs. Ten races might seem like a lot, but if a Chase racer gets behind early and has to combine that with a well-performing, non-Chase driver, the Chase driver will quickly find himself in a hole he can’t climb out of.


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