This Year's Chase May Show What Kind of Champion Keselowski Is
Sometimes you learn more about a player, driver or team when they lose than you can learn from a victory. No one wins every race, makes every shot, wins every game. Even the 1972 Dolphins, who ran the table at 17-0 with a Super Bowl victory, lost the following year with basically the same roster. So losing is a part of all sports, including auto racing. With Brad Keselowski needing a miracle Saturday night at Richmond, we may well soon see just how the Blue Deuce team responds to being unable to defend their series championship in this year's Chase. How they react when and if that happens may yet tell us if Keselowski is the next Gordon / Johnson / Earnhardt- or if he's simply a one hit wonder who happened to put together a lucky season.
Brad Keselowski 2012 Champions gear
Keselowski's run to the Sprint Cup in 2012 was an example of sustained consistency and excellence. In ten Chase races, Brad won twice and finished outside the top ten only two times. One has an 11th place finish in Charlotte and the other was a 15th place in the finale at Homestead (when the title was already decided). The only real adversity the team faced during that ten race stretch was overcoming their pedestrian qualifying efforts. They avoided the major wrecks, managed to hit on the right setup weekly, and raced smart at every track. Over the course of the entire 36 race schedule they had only one DNF, a crash at the season opening race at Daytona.
While luck certainly plays a role in racing, Keselowski's struggles in 2013 (compared to 2012) do not seem to stem from a simple lack of luck. Aside from last Saturday's engine woes at Atlanta, the #2 has only one other DNF this year (a crash at Charlotte). The team has completed over 96% of the scheduled laps this season. Contrast that with hard-luck case Kasey Kahne, who's lost several races to accidents not of his making and has completed under 95% of the scheduled laps.
The difference between Kahne and Keselowski is that when Kahne hasn't wrecked his car has had speed. He has a pair of wins that ensure should he finish outside the top ten in points he'll still have a seat at the table once NASCAR's playoffs start. In addition to the wins he has more than double the laps led this season compared to Keselowski. Ultimately Kahne is running up front and in contention for wins while the defending series champion is clinging to the end of the lead lap.
Coming into 2013, Penske was expected to experience some growing pains. The team had been the lone major Dodge team left in the sport in 2012 and received their manufacturers undivided attention. While the imminent departure of Penske to Ford was known prior to season's end, Dodge undoubtedly wanted to go out on a high note and provided Penske with the tools they needed to compete for a title. The transition to Ford meant that Penske not only changed manufacturers but also that they gave up control of their engines. That kind of change is something that any team would struggle with; throw in the new Gen 6 car NASCAR debuted this season and you have enough change to throw any team off its game.
Yet it's not as if the team as a whole is down on power or speed. In his first season with Penske, Joey Logano is having the best season of his career. He has a win, eight top fives and 14 top ten finishes in the first 25 races. He's in position to qualify for the Chase and hasn't finished below eight since July's race in New Hampshire. The team qualifies well and follows it up with solid finishes every week. With the Chase looming, Logano's team is hitting on all cylinders and has a real shot to replicate this year what Keselowski did last year.
NASCAR's history is littered with drivers who built to one magical season then never reached those heights again. In the last 20 years, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte provide a pair of cautionary tales. Jarrett won the 1999 series championship after finishing either second or third the three years prior. After his title run, Jarrett's points position steadily declined to where he finished 26th in points four years later. Labonte won the 2000 championship but by 2004 he was outside the top ten in points and never won a race after the '03 season. Both drivers ran for competitive teams; Jarrett spent a decade with Yates while Labonte watched his teammate, Tony Stewart, win a pair of championships. Yet both never achieved the same level of success they found in winning a championship. That's not to say that either was a poor driver or lacked effort; in fact, both gained even greater popularity in the seasons after their titles. But they were not running for championships.
Keselowski and Paul Wolfe may soon face that dilemma themselves. Unless they win at Richmond (and several other things break their way), they will be on the outside looking in for the last ten races of the season. They will have every reason to go through the motions in terms of their own performance and begin waiting for the calendar pages to turn. With NASCAR's attention firmly fixed on the 12 Chase drivers, their performances will go under the radar. Few will notice and fewer will care what takes place inside the Blue Deuce garage. But they will know and that knowledge will go a long way into determining whether Keselowski is ever able to be a championship contender again.
Kyle Busch knows a little something about that. His team missed the Chase last season. While their season-end numbers in top five and top ten finishes roughly matched their prior year's performance, the wins just weren't there (he won only one race, a spring victory in Richmond). Already ineligible to compete for a championship, the team hit its nadir at Chase race #2 in New Hampshire. They finished two laps down in 28th place. Instead of packing it in and waiting until next year, the team doubled down their efforts and scored six top five finishes over the final eight races. Busch now credits that strong finish with the momentum the team carries this season. They've won four races and sit firmly inside the Chase even if they team were to sit out the Richmond race.
So the question for the Blue Deuce crew is not how can they qualify for the Chase. Even a win would not guarantee them a chance; it's merely the price of admission to even have a shot right now. Like Jordan, they've failed multiple times so far. The question is whether they're going to merely accept the reality of their current situation- or whether this failure will be why they succeed.