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Wild Card Watch: Wake-up call for champ

June 26, 2013, George Winkler, NASCAR.com

Wild Card Watch: Wake-up call for champ
Keselowski has cooled after hot start

RELATED: Sprint Cup Series standings

The defending champ must be champing at the bit for a victory this season. Among the drivers currently in the 10 guaranteed Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup spots, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only ones other than Brad Keselowski who have not made a trip to Victory Lane in 2013.

The advantage for Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr., though, is that they have 75- and 26-point cushions, respectively, between themselves and Martin Truex Jr., who is in 10th place (up three spots from last week) after his victory on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Meanwhile, Keselowski’s lead over Truex Jr. is as slim as it gets at one point. One more big slip like he had in the Coca-Cola 600 when a late-race wreck with Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led to a 36th-place finish and Keselowski, who is ninth in the standings, could be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Chase -- even for a Wild Card berth.

Some might say Keselowski has a built-in excuse for his standing because he’d have 31 more points were it not for a pair of penalties. However, those are points he’s obviously never going to get back, so there’s no sense crying about them now.

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What it could say, though, is that Keselowski has been a little bit better than his point total might indicate and that there is potential for him to make a charge toward the Chase. He certainly showed tenacity early in the season by piloting even damaged cars at times during seven top-10 finishes in the season’s first eight races.

But since then he has just one top-10 finish in nine races -- that being his fifth-place showing nearly four weeks ago at Dover.  After that, he placed 16th at Pocono, 12th at Michigan and 21st at Sonoma. And on top of that, Keselowski got into a well-publicized verbal dust-up with Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs over hiring practices.

Keselowski summed things up best when after qualifying at Sonoma he said, “We’ve got some work to do because I don’t think we’re all that great right now.”

However, there is a chance to recapture some of that greatness this week at Kentucky Speedway, where the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ also happens to be the defending race champ. He won there in June of 2012 and placed seventh in 2011, the only two years the Cup has run races at Kentucky Speedway.

Plus, keep in mind that this was the point last season when Keselowski turned things around. He entered Kentucky with seven top-10s in 2012, but the win in the Bluegrass State got the Blue Deuce off and running toward a string of 17 top-10s in the last 20 races, ending with that big beer in Miami.

Can he do it again? Can he just get back on track? We shall soon find out, and remember, Keselowski plans to drive in all three events this weekend at Kentucky, so he’ll get plenty of testing time.

Ready to pounce: Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports; Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing. It has to be a tad bit concerning for those on the fringe of the Chase to know that they are in a fight with these two veterans and former series champions. Both moved up the standings three spots this week, with Gordon jumping to 13th thanks to his second-place finish at Sonoma and Busch climbing to 17th after a fourth-place showing in Wine Country.

The scary part is neither driver has achieved the consistency this season that he had during the title runs, but we’ve seen what they are capable of when their teams are running on all cylinders. However, like Keselowski, neither Gordon nor Busch has a victory this season to help in the Wild Card race. 

Gordon is 12 points behind Truex Jr. for the final non-Wild Card spot in the Chase while Busch is 28 points back, so a win at Kentucky would be particularly important for Busch, while it would vault Gordon right into contention. Gordon finished fifth at Kentucky last year and 10th the year before. Busch was 19th and ninth, respectively.

In danger of falling out: Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing. Menard has been teetering on the fringe of the Chase for the past three weeks after spending most of his time in the top 10 early in the season thanks to some solid runs, highlighted by an eighth-place finish in Fontana. But he hasn’t had a top-10 since Kansas, and one wonders how long he can continue to be a legit competitor without grabbing a victory.

Trouble is he only has one win in 10 seasons on the Sprint Cup circuit, and that came in 2011 at Indianapolis. It happens to be a venue that is coming up soon at the end of July, but can he hold on for a month without top-10s and still be in this thing by then? Probably not, so Menard has to step up at a track in Kentucky where he has finished 12th and 24th the past two years.

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