With defending champ in a rut, No. 2 team will continue to scrap
Unsurprisingly, the immediate focus was the green car. There was Danica Patrick in the middle of a three-wide pack at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- her boyfriend -- running on the bottom, and Brad Keselowski at the top. Vehicles squirmed, sparks flew, sheet metal was damaged and breathless speculation commenced over how NASCAR’s highest-profile couple might be impacted by their first on-track scrape.
Meanwhile, lost in the tabloid fodder, the car of the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was sliding into the frontstretch wall, its right side so banged up that a wide, dark gash ran straight through the middle of the No. 2 on the door. Keselowski’s Coca-Cola 600 was finished, not that it had been much of a memorable one anyway -- his car hadn’t been able to keep up on the long green-flag runs earlier in the night and had fallen a lap down, explaining why the champ was back there among the rookies in the first place.
In the aftermath, Keselowski took the fall. “I cut her off and wrecked her and myself. I feel bad for her, and I send my apologies to her,” he said, referring to Patrick. It was the end of two rough weekends at Charlotte for the No. 2 team, which followed a rough night at Darlington, which came on the heels of a controversial afternoon at Talladega and rough evening at Richmond, all of which explains why the best driver in NASCAR last season is now hanging onto his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup position by a fingernail.
Related: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings
"I know my guys, and we will be out with something to prove over these next few races."
-- Brad Keselowski
Throughout its title run last year, and even into the first few weeks of the current campaign, the flagship program at Penske Racing has been defined by perseverance. Throw something at them -- like the two accidents they were involved in before nearly winning the Daytona 500 -- and they overcome it. There’s something about the bonds between Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe and those guys in blue and white that make them larger than their individual pieces, and give them confidence that no hurdle is too high. We know it, because we’ve seen it in action. But this year, we’re learning that intangibles can do only so much.
Keselowski’s DNF on Sunday night was his first since the 2012 Daytona 500. But in truth, the No. 2 team had been walking that tightrope for a while. The broken driveshaft that knocked him out of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race came in an exhibition. At Darlington, Keselowski pitted for what he thought was a vibration and never made up the lost lap. Talladega brought a 15th-place finish and the short-lived restart dispute with winner David Ragan. Richmond saw damage from a cut tire that forced Keselowski to make his way from the back, and a lost cylinder that eventually sent him to 33rd.
Over that span Keselowski has dropped from third to 10th in the standings, with Kyle Busch just three points behind. More importantly, he still doesn’t have a victory to fall back on, and this weekend’s event at Dover International Speedway marks the halfway point of the regular season. Is this really the same team that finished in the top five in each of the first four events of the season? Is Keselowski destined to join Tony Stewart, who remains the only driver to win the championship one year and miss the Chase the next?
Hold on, now. With the very notable exception of Sunday’s whiff in the Coca-Cola 600, Keselowski’s cars have still shown speed. That was never more evident than at Richmond, when Keselowski was working his was back through the field after suffering the flat tire, and then was doing it again after being trapped on pit road by a caution, only to have it all go for naught when the cylinder dropped. At Darlington, his car seemed fast enough to keep pace with the leaders until the vibration developed. No question, the car was slow at Charlotte, but at this point that seems the exception rather than the rule.
That’s perhaps because Keselowski has spent the last three weeks without Wolfe, the team’s master strategist and one of seven Penske crew members suspended for rear-end housing violations found on the team’s cars prior to the April 13 event at Texas. This weekend at Dover, Wolfe returns -- as do car chief Jerry Kelley, engineer Brian Wilson and competition director Travis Geisler, all suspended as part of a penalty that also cost Keselowski 25 points, right now the difference between 10th and eighth in the standings.
“I was proud of the way everyone stepped up in the absence of Paul and the guys,” Keselowski said. “For the most part, we had a lot of speed in our cars. We missed it a bit in the 600, and that has us in a bit of a hole in the standings. I know my guys, and we will be out with something to prove over these next few races. Paul is absolutely chomping at the bit to get back to the track. And going into Dover this weekend as the most recent winner there gives us a little confidence, too.”
No, it can’t hurt that Keselowski won the most recent Sprint Cup event at Dover, where Wolfe engineered a fuel-mileage victory in September that helped the No. 2 team seize the advantage in the championship race. Plus, to a certain degree, Keselowski has been here before -- a year ago he was in even worse shape statistically, at 11th place in the standings.
So yes, it’s too early to panic in regard to the No. 2 team, even if some of its more recent outings have been a little bumpier than we’ve come to expect from one of NASCAR’s top outfits. But then again, this has never been a group as clinically efficient as Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 bunch, who can make NASCAR look like a special forces operation. Keselowski, Wolfe and company still scratch and claw and strategize, even on their better days. It’s a team built on grit and Bear Bond. In that light, this recent rough stretch seems just another hurdle the reigning champions need to overcome.
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