Keselowski makes a statement with Chicago win
For those who thought Brad Keselowski might lay back and points race, think again.
With 18 laps to go, Keselowski restarted behind Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson, who spent two laps battling side-by-side for the lead. The two were doorhandle to doorhandle and it was worth wondering if they might well wreck each other in pursuit of the victory. With the 12 bonus points Brad had from winning four regular season races, the logical choice seemed to lay back and protect his top five finish. After all, for his team to advance, he simply needs to be above the bottom four drivers. A third place finish would get any team off to a great start at that goal, particularly when starting with those bonus points.
Instead of laying back, Keselowski closed in on the pair and split the difference between them with 16 laps left in the race. Larson gave way while Harvick desperately tried to break Keselowski's momentum by coming up the track. It was all in vain. Even a final restart couldn't knock Brad off the lead as he dominated the closing laps and took the checkered flag going away.
Watch Keselowski's amazing pass for the win at Chicago
The win was a statement both to himself and to his competition; the #2 team is better than its ever been and will be a factor in the weeks ahead. Moreover, while points are important, Keselowski is willing to take the kinds of chances that will separate the field over the first three Chase rounds. The much-dreaded idea of “points-racing” may have its place but if Keselowski has his way, it won't determine a champion.
What a difference a year (and missing the 2013 Chase) makes. A year ago at Watkins Glen, Brad elected to avoid contact with Kyle Busch as the laps wound down. He had the opportunity to move Busch out of the way and win the race- a move that would have gotten him into the Chase while making him into a fan favorite. Yet Keselowski decided to race hard but clean, pulling back when the moment of contact arrived. In his post-race interview, he had a chance to win but shied away. “I almost had him but I was going to have to wreck him to do it and I've had enough drama.” A good finish was better than a wreck while going for the win.
That Brad Keselowski was a more “grown up” driver than the one who once earned the nickname 'Bad Brad' for his on-track feuds. He looked at the bigger picture and decided that bringing the car home in one piece outweighed the possible benefits of punting Busch. It seemed like a logical decision at the time and a lot of commentators praised Brad for “doing the right thing” and “racing him clean.”
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The problem was that the “grown up” version of Keselowski was ultimately on the sideline once the 2013 Chase began. Points racing is a necessary evil in today's NASCAR but to win a championship, drivers need to first win races. The need is even more important under the new Chase system, which guarantees a slot in the next round for winning in the current one. Anything short of a win leaves a team at the mercy of fate in the other two races.
So when Keselowski split between Harvick and Larson, he was doing far more than just taking an opportunity that presented itself. He was stating to one and all that he and his team are prepared to do the kinds of things that lead to race wins. They are willing to take chances to get up front- even if those chances could ultimately put the car in the wall. Keselowski isn't going to simply points race and do the bare minimum to survive in advance. He's going to seize the moment.
It's the same kind of attitude that Keselowski showed two years ago during his title run. As the 2012 season wound down, the championship race essentially became a two man competition between himself and Jimmie Johnson. Unlike other challengers who'd failed to defeat Johnson in the past, Keselowski embraced the battle. He spoke of racing Johnson hard and then backed up his words with aggressive driving on track. Instead of folding under the pressure (as other drivers had done in years past), Keselowski was up to the challenge. And in the moment of truth, it was Johnson who fell, finishing 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead.
The Keselowski that was on display Sunday is the same kind of driver. It's also the same kind of driver he's been all season long, winning four races during the regular season and heading into the Chase as the number one seed. And it's the kind of driver that he'll need to be if he's to become a two time Sprint Cup series champion.
Certainly the performance of Penske Racing overall hasn't hurt. Teammate Joey Logano entered the Chase with three wins and finished fourth at Chicago. Unless his team hits a major roadblock at one of the next two races, they'll likely advance to the next round as well. The two have combined to lead over 2,000 laps so far this season, the highest total of any two teammates. While the other Ford teams have struggled, Penske has led the way despite having only two teams.
But with five wins in 27 races, it is Keselowski who is now the unquestioned favorite heading into the next round. He will need to fight against complacency; Matt Kenseth won the first two Chase races a year ago and still ultimately fell short to Johnson. And at some point, the two Penske drivers may have to begin seeing each other as a threat to the title instead of a teammate to learn from. The dynamic they've built over the past two years would then be at risk.
However, those seem more like parts to the narrative instead of insurmountable roadblocks. With eight more races to go before the finale at Homestead, Keselowski is rounding into championship form. His second straight win shows the regular season was no fluke. Just as important, his pass for the win Sunday showed Keselowski isn't going to simply points race his way there. It's a statement of purpose, a statement of will that his team will not be denied in 2014. The only question is, who will stand up to challenge him?