Champ overcomes bump in road to defend Cup title
Related: Penske penalty timeline
CONCORD, N.C. -- Wrap him in a straitjacket, secure him with locks and iron chains, and dangle him over shark-infested waters with time running out. Somehow, Brad Keselowski would find a way to wriggle himself free, and before long have an iPhone in one hand, and a cold Miller Lite in the other.
At least that’s the way it’s seemed for NASCAR’s resident Houdini, who already this season has made more than his share of great escapes. There was the Daytona 500, when his twice-wrecked race car was somehow the last thing standing between Jimmie Johnson and victory. There was Texas, when he was on the starting grid late, fell a lap down early, and rallied to finish ninth. There was Kansas, when he managed sixth despite losing a lap for a left-rear quarterpanel that had been ripped off in an accident.
It’s been that kind of year for the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, who over and over again has been faced by adversity, and more times than not -- with the exception of a late engine problem at Richmond that thwarted his second run from the back -- been able to overcome it. And yet, Tuesday afternoon may have been his greatest act yet, and it didn’t even occur on the race track.
"They’re great guys with a lot of experience, and as I said, we’ve got a deep bench."
-- Roger Penske
Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook upheld the majority of penalties NASCAR levied against the Penske Racing teams, including 25-point deductions that could still bite Keselowski and Joey Logano in the end. Those are still serious and weighty sanctions, and they were left intact following Roger Penske’s final appeal of rear-end violations discovered prior to the April 13 event in Fort Worth. But the one part of the penalty Middlebrook amended -- cutting the suspensions of seven team members from six points races to two -- could prove crucial indeed for a team trying to repeat as champion.
There’s no denying the importance of crew chief Paul Wolfe to the career of Keselowski, who has recorded eight of his nine premier-level victories with his current signal-caller on the pit box. There’s no denying the strength of the two of them together, a relationship that five-time champion Jimmie Johnson compares to that of him and crew chief Chad Knaus, or Jeff Gordon and three-time champion Ray Evernham. And there’s no denying how crippling it potentially could have been for the No. 2 team to have the pair forcibly split for six points events, as well as the Sprint All-Star Race.
Would a six-event Wolfe suspension alone have derailed Keselowski’s bid for a second consecutive championship? Perhaps not. But considering this is a team still without a race victory to fall back on, it certainly had the potential to be damaging. Keselowski and Wolfe have been able to rebound so often this year precisely because that No. 2 team is such a cohesive unit, beginning with the flow of trust and information between the crew chief and the driver. Disrupt that for seven long weeks -- until Kentucky, in far-away late June -- and who knows what things might look like on the other end.
Now? A three-week suspension -- Wolfe, Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon, competition director Travis Geisler and four other team members will miss Darlington, All-Star and the Coca-Cola 600 -- is still serious, no doubt. But it also seems much more manageable, especially since the two points races during that span are run in tandem with Nationwide Series events, giving Penske the option to dip into that level for crew chiefs like Greg Erwin and Jeremy Bullins.
Asked Tuesday what personnel shuffles he planned to make, Penske declined to get into particulars. “We haven’t specifically announced that,” he said. “We have to talk internally to our teams, so I don’t want to pre-announce anything here today. But we have a game plan. Hopefully you’ll see people that you know at the race track. They’re great guys with a lot of experience, and as I said, we’ve got a deep bench.”
With a part-time third Sprint Cup program, two strong Nationwide teams and affiliated open-wheel operations, he certainly has plenty of areas to pull from, especially to fill a gap that’s decidedly more short-term than it seemed only days earlier. “Business as usual at Darlington,” Penske called it, and while that won’t be completely the case -- there are a pair of car chiefs and engineers to replace as well, in addition to Geisler, a former crew chief who is a fixture at the track -- moving the pieces around certainly seems less arduous than it could have been.
Let’s remember, though, that the reduced suspension don’t mean Penske emerges from this completely unscarred. The points losses are still substantial, particularly for Logano, who was 11th in the standings before all this unfolded, and is now 18th, 43 points behind 10th-place Greg Biffle for the final guaranteed berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. For the No. 22 team in particular, this could still prove devastating, especially if Logano can’t win the races necessary to put himself in position for a wild card berth.
Keselowski, at fifth in the standings, is in much better shape -- even if he doesn’t have a race victory yet this year either, partly because he and Wolfe have been busy running a graduate-level course on crisis management. That No. 2 car is still very fast, and perhaps the best this season at making up spots in traffic. When they stop cutting down tires or getting banged up back in traffic, they’re going to be exceedingly dangerous, even more so now that Wolfe will be out just two points races rather than the expected six.
“From my perspective, the key thing is, we have our people back at the race track operating at full control,” Penske said, as only he can. “To me, that’s most important. We have what, (15) more races roughly before the Chase? If we’re going to win and be a leader and win the championship again, we have plenty of time to do that. To me, I just want to move on.”
That won’t be quite as simple for Logano, way down there in the standings, and still yet to prove himself a consistent race winner. But Keselowski has to look at the summertime stretch laid out before him and like what he sees: strong tracks, perhaps his bad luck behind him, and his crew chief returning at Dover. For the reigning Sprint Cup champion, the great escapes continue. Who knows what his next trick might be.
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