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For Keselowski, a difficult right call to make

August 18, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Keselowski wasn't fond of crew chief Paul Wolfe's decision to pit for fuel

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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Brad Keselowski wanted to go for it.

That much was evident in the tenor of his voice, as he and crew chief Paul Wolfe debated strategy in the final laps Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. With the No. 2 car in the lead and its driver still without a victory in the waning weeks of the Sprint Cup Series regular season, the urgency was understandable. But so was the reality of how many circuits were remaining, and how much fuel was left in the tank.

"I don't know, man. Your call," Keselowski told his crew chief over the radio. "But I don't want to pit."

Crunching the numbers, Wolfe knew there was no other option. "It's a big risk if we don't," he responded. "We could end up finishing 28th."

Finally, team owner Roger Penske intervened. "We've got to pit," the Captain intoned. The debate ended, the No. 2 car came in under yellow for two tires and fuel, and after restarting mid-pack Keselowski drove up to a 12th-place result that maintained his eighth-place standing in Sprint Cup points.

Not that he was thrilled about it.

"It's the same (bleeping) deal every week," Keselowski said after the race. "The yellows fall exactly the wrong way to screw our strategy. That can't keep going that way. Eventually it's like blackjack, you aren't going to keep turning 15 or 16 on every damn hand. Eventually you are going to turn a good hand. We just didn't catch it today."

Keselowski ran in the top-10 for much of the race, and stayed out to take the lead under caution with 43 laps remaining after Kyle Busch spun into the wall. Without a victory yet this season, the reigning champ has walked a tightrope as far as Chase for the Sprint Cup contention, earning a small measure of breathing room by breaking back into the top 10 with a runner-up performance at Watkins Glen last week. Suddenly, there he was out front -- until Busch spun again, this time with 27 laps remaining, forcing the No. 2 team to make a decision it really didn't want to make.

"It's frustrating," Wolfe said. "It was real tough. But we're not in the greatest situation right now, points-wise, and the risk-versus-reward situation wasn't adding up in my head. I knew if we pitted there we should hopefully get a top 15 out of it and still keep ourselves in the top 10 in points where we need to be. And I know going into these next races, these are all tracks where I feel we're capable of winning races, and we'll get our wins. So today was just, have a good solid day, continue to work on our points, and we did that."

In the moment, though, it wasn't quite that easy. Under yellow, Wolfe broke the news to Keselowski that they'd need at least one more caution to make it to the end. "I pit here, I'm pretty much guaranteeing a 10th-place day," the driver said.

"That's what we need right now," Wolfe responded.

The two went back and forth a little more until Penske settled the matter. "I think once the boss radioed in and said that," Wolfe said after the race, "I don't think the driver was going to argue anymore at that point."

In the cockpit, it was reluctant agreement. "You know I want to win. I don’t want to points race," Keselowski radioed his crew chief after the pit stop.

"I hear you," Wolfe responded. "Me too. Me too. We'll get there."

Keselowski restarted 17th after pitting and got back to 12th, keeping himself eight points to the good side of the Chase bubble. Mark Martin was using the same late-race strategy as Keselowski, and stayed out during the final caution period after Busch spun the second time. Flirting with his first Sprint Cup victory since 2009, the part-time Michael Waltrip Racing driver ran out of fuel with four laps remaining, and would up 27th -- allowing Keselowski’s Penske teammate Joey Logano to seize a win that bolstered his own Chase hopes.

Seeing the No. 55 run dry offered a small bit of solace for Wolfe. Had Keselowski stayed out, he would have run out of gas at about the same time.

"Absolutely, because I think (Martin) was 27th, and we would have been one spot ahead of him," the crew chief said. "At the end of the day, that call kept us in the top 10 where we need to be."

Added Keselowski: "I guess we made the right call," he said, "but I ain’t gotta like it."

With three races remaining until the Chase field is decided, Penske said both his drivers are "on the bubble" as far as the playoff is concerned. But after a rough early summer, the defending champions seem to have rediscovered their footing and are turning out more consistent results. One reason Wolfe was content to take what he could get at Michigan was because he feels better tracks lie ahead -- beginning next weekend at Bristol, where Keselowski has won twice.

"I feel like out of these four races we had, this was probably our weakest track," Wolfe said of the 2-mile oval. "Heading to Bristol, we've obviously got a lot of confidence there as well as Atlanta and Richmond, where we run well. It's good to see our teammate in Victory Lane, and obviously that's going to help their cause in making the Chase, and we’ve just got to keep working. Both cars were fast today, so that's encouraging."

Logano's triumph could wind up working against Keselowski in the Wild Card race, given that his teammate now has a victory, even if he is five positions lower in the standings. But to the defending Sprint Cup champion, there's only one route back into the Chase.

"I'm not looking at Wild Card," Keselowski said. "I want my way into the top 10."

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