No. 2 team sees strategy falter, Chase chances diminish
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway means everything to a Penske driver, and this was certainly not how a Penske driver wanted an event at the Brickyard to end. Not debriefing outside the hauler as a race car that had finished 21st was loaded up, while another driver -- a former Penske one, at that -- celebrated in a Victory Lane as hallowed as any in motorsports.
And yet that’s where Brad Keselowski found himself late Sunday afternoon after an uneven day that encapsulated an uneven season, and still lacking any guarantee that he’ll qualify to defend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship he won last year. Keselowski was one of several drivers who played the fuel-strategy game at Indy, and he found himself leading with 11 laps remaining -- when he had to pit for fuel, dropping him back in the field and clearing the way for Ryan Newman to charge to victory.
“That was definitely not the day we wanted. It was an up-and-down day, and the way the cycles ended it was down on the finish. I don’t think that was indicative of how we ran. That has been the story of the year,” Keselowski said.
“We were probably a fifth- to 10th-place car, which isn’t where we want to be, and we know we have work to do to make our stuff faster. But we weren’t a 21st-place car, it is just the way things worked out. It has been one of those years where when we have a car that is fast enough to contend and win races it turns into a strategy race, and when we don’t have a car fast enough and we play strategy, it turns into a race like today where it was about speed. We haven’t been able to catch it the right way. In reality we would like to be fast everywhere, but that hasn’t been the case for us. That is what we need to work on.”
The time in which they have to do that is growing short. Six races remain until the 12 drivers who will vie for this year’s Sprint Cup title are determined, and Keselowski still lacks a victory to enhance his position in the Wild Card standings. Sunday the reigning champion dropped four places to 13th in points, six behind 10th-place Jeff Gordon. Newman’s victory also added another driver between Keselowski and a potential Wild Card berth, for which Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. retain the edge because of race wins and higher point standings.
Keselowski finished inside the top five in each of the season’s first four races, but hasn’t been able to maintain any kind of consistency since. A fourth-place result two weekends ago at New Hampshire is the lone bright spot in a stretch that’s seen him finish 21st or worse in four of his last five starts. Is Keselowski concerned about potentially becoming only the second reigning champion to miss the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, joining Stewart in 2006?
“If you don’t have concerns, then your heart isn’t in it,” he said. “You should be concerned from Daytona on. When you have success you lessen those concerns, and we have had some success this year, but we haven’t had the wins and consistency to remove all of those concerns. I am not going to say that I feel 100 percent about a lot of things, but I can say that I believe in the people I am around, and we are going to get this right. It is just a matter of when.”
Even so, Sunday was his season in microcosm -- a fast car, intervening circumstances and a final result less than what he and crew chief Paul Wolfe had envisioned. And it had to be especially frustrating at Indianapolis, where car owner Roger Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 a record 15 times, and where Keselowski delivered the Captain’s first NASCAR victory at the Brickyard in the track’s inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series event last season.
That win was so meaningful to the organization, that a photo of Keselowski kissing the yard of bricks start/finish line is displayed the at Penske shop. There was no such encore this weekend, which was capped by a roller-coaster Sunday that became another chapter in a roller-coaster season. And for Keselowski, no one is yet sure how the ride will end.
“It is part of racing,” he said. “I think in this sport if the rules are being enforced the way they are supposed to be enforced, you should go through a roller coaster. Certain cars should have advantages and disadvantages throughout the year. I felt we were really strong at the beginning of the year, and not so strong now. I think we will be really strong at the end of the year. For us, that challenge is we know we need to make the Chase first, and then we will ride that roller coaster the other way if we get there.”