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Menzer: Keselowski's strength lies in approach's simplicity

August 29, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Surprise title contender has grown with help from laser focus, crew chief

It's all so new, everyone is still trying to figure out how the new points system and the new Chase format is going to play out this season.

All one needs to remember is that the new system was all about KISS -- Keeping It Simple, Stupid.

"This sport in its simplest form is just about winning. Why make it any more complicated than that?"

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

The one team that seems to have remembered that -- bottled it, if you will -- and is putting it to use week after week after week as the Chase fast approaches is the one team that quite possibly has emerged as the clear-cut favorite to win it all.

Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending champion? Kyle Busch, who was Flavor of the Week only six days earlier after winning his series-high fourth race of the season at Michigan for Joe Gibbs Racing? Four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Johnson's obviously capable Hendrick Motorsports teammate who continues to run consistently strong? Matt Kenseth or Carl Edwards, stalwarts of Roush Fenway Racing? Kevin Harvick, who has three wins and is heading up the effort for Richard Childress Racing?

Um, no. That would be Brad Keselowski -- the hottest driver of them all. He's been wheeling his No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing like a man possessed, but he's been kept in check by level-headed crew chief Paul Wolfe and circumstances that have coyly, almost unsuspectingly, played right into their team's hands.

The Wolfe man

Keselowski is young and stubborn and would be the first to admit that he doesn't always filter his thoughts before they fly out through his lips. Some call that brash; others call it refreshing. On the race track, as recently as early last year, he frequently irritated opponents by driving too aggressively when perhaps he should have, or at least could have, backed off.

But in winning his third race of the season Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Keselowski underscored a couple of major points that are playing into his favor.

The first is having Wolfe on his pit box. The guy appears to be the next crew chief superstar, and these two have done it right. A former driver himself who made 16 starts in the Nationwide Series during the 2003 through 2005 seasons, Wolfe, only 34, obviously speaks the same racing language as the still up-and-coming 27-year-old Keselowski.

They paired together to capture the 2010 Nationwide championship, a season during which Keselowski won six times, captured five poles and scored a series-record 26 top-five finishes in 35 races. Now they're on a Sprint Cup tear. In the past seven races, they have six finishes of ninth or better -- including wins at Pocono and now Bristol. No team has been anywhere close to as consistently good.

"We've definitely kind of got things going for us right now, and it's weird because it's not really doing anything different," Wolfe told reporters following Saturday's latest triumph. "It's been a lot of small things over the past couple months just starting to add up. We've got fast race cars, the driver is doing his part, the pit crew is doing their part, and we're making good calls and adjustments on pit road."

So get this: the No. 2 team has come on as Wolfe has grown into his job as a rookie Sprint Cup crew chief. It took him a little time to realize he wasn't in the Nationwide Series anymore, and how to adjust to that reality.

"The biggest thing for me that I've noticed being in the Cup Series is these races are a lot longer obviously than the Nationwide races I'm used to, and you've got to be able to adjust on your car as the track changes," Wolfe said. "And as the race goes on, everybody seems to get better.

"I feel like as a team we've done a good job adjusting on our cars and making them so they have adjustability in them. And we continue to bring good race cars to the race track every week -- something that Brad can go out there in and do his part."

Laser focused

So as Wolfe and Keselowski have grown together along with the pit crew and the Penske Racing engineer team, the Blue Deuce has progressively gotten better to the point where now it's one of the best cars on the race track each week. It doesn't matter where or what type of track, either -- and that bodes well for their Chase chances.

But there are other factors that have played unwittingly into their favor as they prepare for their Chase run.

The first is the new points system/championship format. Keselowski was understandably disappointed that he did not get the opportunity to defend his 2010 Nationwide championship as NASCAR issued the mandate for the first time that drivers needed to declare in which series -- and only one -- they wished to compete for a title.

In years past, drivers could openly compete for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup championships in the same season. Keselowski, like Carl Edwards, decided he would defiantly run a full-time Nationwide schedule anyway -- partially to satisfy sponsorship commitments, but mostly to attempt to quell his insatiable personal desire to race competitively as often as possible at the highest levels available to him.

'Lucky' seven?

Keselowski's recent runs
TrackStartFinishPts. Standing
New Hampshire53523
Indianapolis5921
Pocono13118
Watkins Glen12214
Michigan6312
Bristol8111

Then Keselowski suffered a broken left ankle and other injuries during a test at Road Atlanta on Aug. 3. Pardon the pun and the crazier thought, but perhaps that's the second break he unknowingly needed to place all his focus on chasing the Cup title. He's been getting out of his Nationwide car in recent weeks and letting other drivers substitute for him so he can keep the ankle healthy enough to survive the Cup races.

His sole focus, in other words, has become pursuing first a Chase berth and now a Sprint Cup championship. There are no outside distractions. If anything, the ankle injury has forced him to become even more laser-focused on the singular task of winning the only championship he can.

Lastly, Keselowski has avoided the type of on-track controversy this season that may end up costing drivers such as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick if they carry ill will over into the Chase. Quite simply, Keselowski and his team have become poster children for the KISS philosophy.

"This sport in its simplest form is just about winning," Keselowski said. "Why make it any more complicated than that? If you've got cars to win, go out there and win. If you don't, get the best finish you can.

"I look at Jimmie, and the years of success he's had for winning championships. He wins races in the Chase and you've got to be able to do that. I'm sure we could look at this all different kinds of ways and coast into [the Chase] or just take all those stupid risks to win races -- but you just do the best you can on any given week. You try to be smart at it and smart about it and try not to overthink it.

"And then you'll have great weeks like we're having here if you've got a great team. We've got a great team. I don't think we're overthinking it."

It is the smartest approach any team has going right now.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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