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Three Kentucky races, one goal for Keselowski

June 26, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Reigning Sprint Cup champ needs Sparta win to spark title defense

If there is such a thing as a statement victory in the middle of a season by a driver 10th in points, Brad Keselowski certainly recorded it a year ago at Kentucky Speedway. He had wrecked his primary car on the very first lap of practice a day earlier, rebounding into the wall after making contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. His crew then rushed to prepare a backup vehicle amid the searing heat of a Bluegrass State summer.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe called it “probably the toughest weekend our team has ever had up to this point.” And yet, the results of that effort were on display not just on a single Saturday, but for the remainder of a season that would net Keselowski his first championship in NASCAR’s premier series. Kentucky was the linchpin -- that 4.3-second victory over Kasey Kahne capped Keselowski’s series-leading third win of the season, and kicked off a stretch that would see him finish worse than 11th only once until the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"It’s a track that really suits me, because it’s so rough, and I tend to do well on those."
--Brad Keselowski on Kentucky Speedway

There were other victories by Keselowski last year that attracted more attention -- his last-lap move to win at Talladega Superspeedway, certainly, or his fuel-mileage jackpots to kick off the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- but it was the torrid span started in Sparta, Ky. that put him in position to do everything else. The only blemish over that period was a 30th-place finish in the Bristol night race, stemming from a bump by Bobby Labonte. The rest was a clinic by a driver who began it as a question mark, and ended it as a title favorite.

Keselowski could use another of those stretches right about now, as he returns to Kentucky in a more precarious situation than a season ago, even if he’s one spot better in the standings. The Penske Racing driver is entered in all three events on the 1.5-mile track, beginning with the Camping World Truck Series contest on Thursday night. But for the pilot of Cup car No. 2 on this three-race weekend, the most important number remains one -- as in, the first Sprint Cup victory the reigning champion still needs to bolster his chances of defending his title.

Granted, Keselowski’s current position isn’t solely his doing -- he was saddled earlier this year with a 25-point penalty (the difference between his current spot and a three-way tie for sixth), lost Wolfe to suspension for two points events for the same rear-end housing violation at Texas Motor Speedway, and has suffered from mechanical issues ranging from a vibration to a broken drive shaft. In any event, the results are the same: an eye-opening four consecutive top-five finishes to start the season and a head-scratching one top-five finish since.

So yes, Keselowski could use more Kentucky magic on a bumpy surface where he’s never finished worse than seventh in seven combined Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup starts. “It’s a track that really suits me, because it’s so rough,” he said, “and I tend to do well on those.”

He’ll certainly have plenty of time to get acclimated to it, when both he and Kyle Busch -- the only Sprint Cup winners in the facility’s brief premier-series history -- attempt to capture their own personal triple crowns by racing in all three events at Kentucky. Although Busch is the only driver thus far to manage a tripleheader sweep (at Bristol Motor Speedway, in August of 2010), it’s not uncommon for multiple drivers to attempt them on the same weekend. It’s happened 27 times previously, most recently last year in Sparta when Keselowski and Scott Riggs raced in all three events.

“I'll say this, those guys are brave doing it at Kentucky, because it's one of the hottest places we go, it seems like,” said Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith, himself no stranger to juggling multiple rides on a single weekend. “I don't know why, but Kentucky with the asphalt that's inside that facility and the way the facility is shaped, it seems like there's no breeze, and it's just brutally hot most of the time when we go there, between that and the humidity. I have not done that. Would I do it? Absolutely. We're all racers. It doesn't matter how hot or cold it is. We want to be in the race car and making laps and learning what we can. Certainly, the more races the better.”

It certainly didn’t seem to faze Keselowski last season, when he placed second in the Truck Series event and seventh in the Nationwide race before winning the big show. The schedule of such an undertaking never lets up -- Thursday brings a full Truck slate in addition to opening Nationwide practice, while Friday offers three practices and a pair of qualifying sessions across the sport’s top two series leading into the Nationwide race that night.

“It’s a lot of on-track time,” Busch said. “On Thursday, we practice all day, and then there’s the Truck race that night. It’s a busy schedule, and you are running back and forth between garages, and it’s typically hot there in Kentucky. The biggest thing you get to work on, and enjoy, is essentially the on-track time and getting to figure out the bumps there, and you get extra track time to figure out if you need to get through them better or if you need to get your guys to give you a better setup to get through the bumps. I have three divisions worth of chances, and three crew chiefs who have different mindsets that, by the time I get to Saturday, I have a feel for what I need to win.”

Which is, of course, the ultimate goal. With two race wins (and likely a clinched Chase berth) already, Busch has more room for error. Not so Keselowski, who sits just nine points ahead of 11th, and has race-winning drivers like Kahne and Tony Stewart right behind him on the outside looking in.

No question, his race team has endured a whole lot already this season, and being able to maintain playoff position through it all has been no small feat. That said, Chase berths aren’t awarded on perseverance. They’re earned through results, and more than halfway through the regular season the reigning champs are still missing the one result that matters most.

Perhaps they’ll find it once again in the land of whiskey and thoroughbreds, rebounding from a tough year in the same steely manner they did that tough weekend a season ago.

Brad Keselowski may be competing in three races in Sparta, but the primary goal remains a single trip to Victory Lane on Saturday night. And if that jump-starts his idling title defense? Well then, this Michigan native might call it his old Kentucky home after all.

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