Defending champion enjoys track's atmosphere, challenges
The series’ defending champion has only six career Cup starts on the 0.533-mile track. Two of the last three, however, have seen him parked in Victory Lane at the end of the race.
“I really just love coming here,” Keselowski said. “I love what this track stands for and I love how it races. I think embracing that challenge is part of our success.”
Finishes of fourth, fourth and third in the season’s first three races have Keselowski, 29, trailing five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson by just five points. Johnson’s been no slouch either, scoring a win, a runner-up and a sixth-place finish to open the year.
Each track on the Cup circuit is unique. Each provides its own set of difficulties. High banks that vary between 24 and 28 degrees and short straightaways provide the ingredients that create the 125-mph speeds at Bristol. When filled with a 43-car field, there’s little room -- or time -- for error.
Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Ford for Penske Racing, describes it as “extremely demanding” and compared it to playing the video game Tetris “because it’s such a mental and physical challenge.”
“You never get a break,” he said. “When you finally get that one puzzle piece to fit the next one is coming, and when you think you’ve got it all figured out it just keeps going faster and faster and faster until it just breaks you down mentally, and I love that challenge.”
It is “an in-your-face race track, where if you just ride around here, you wreck,” he said.
Being overly aggressive can result in trouble as well.
And if you try to ride the edge between the two? “You just have a bad day,” Keselowski said. “So that mental challenge, the window is so small, and that’s what I love about it.”
Denny Hamlin won the last time Cup teams competed at Bristol, the first race after the track’s upper groove had been ground away in an attempt to shrink the racing groove and generate more close-quarters competition. Instead of avoiding the high line, however, teams found the fresh pavement took on rubber more quickly and ultimately provided a better groove.
That may not be the case this time.
“I tried (the upper groove) and I hit the wall, so that’s good,” Keselowski said of an opening-practice incident Friday. “I hope that lane doesn’t come in at all. I hate that groove.”
Points leads, strong starts and momentum can be erased with the turn of the steering wheel at Bristol. It’s 500 laps of racing into the unknown.
“Unpredictability kind of lends itself to drivers making mistakes and drivers making mistakes lends itself to action,” said Keselowski, who will start seventh. “So those are the things I think people look for.
“I think that can still happen, whether you have to run the top groove, the bottom groove or whether this track was multi-grooved to begin with.”
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