Last year's points champion started season strong before running into trouble
RICHMOND, Va. – Brad Keselowski didn’t purchase a boxing rink for his home in anticipation of missing NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, but it may have been useful to vent his frustrations following Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Richmond International Speedway.
“I’ll go down there and punch something,’’ he said mustering a smile and chatting with reporters earlier in the week.
For a while Saturday, it looked like Keselowski might be uncorking champagne instead.
His No. 2 Miller Lite Ford led a race-best 142 laps before fading to a 17th-place finish and ultimately what means a heart-wrenching sideline seat to the 2013 championship.
While the newly determined 12 Chase drivers -- including his young Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano -- met with reporters on pit road and prepared for the annual Chase photograph and celebration after the race, a disappointed Keselowski climbed out of his Ford and made a beeline to the garage.
“I don’t really have any emotions right now,’’ he said. “We weren’t good enough to make it and we didn’t. That is the reality.”
Later he said on Twitter: “Proud we gave it all we had. Just wasn’t enough.’’
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion knew he was a long shot at racing his way into the 12-driver Chase field to launch a title defense. He needed to win at Richmond and some poor luck from the competition or to make up 28 points in the standings to prevent himself from becoming only the second champion (Tony Stewart was the first) in the 10-year Chase format not to qualify for a title shot the following year.
A win in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race at the track, a solid second row qualifying spot for Saturday’s race and a lot of confidence and optimism left him hopeful, however, realistic.
But it proved too much to overcome in one race.
Two days earlier the 29-year-old Keselowski had been candid and introspective about his fate. Winless this year after a five-victory 2012 championship run that had won over thousands of fans made him a household name and placed in him in his sport’s most elite company, Keselowski has been as surprised and disappointed as anyone with the team’s struggles this season.
“Any season you don’t win a championship should be a lost season for every driver, you know,’’ Keselowski said last week. “I can tell you, just making the Chase this year and running eighth or 10th or whatever would not have been a good year, either. That’s how I feel about it.’’
He scored top-four finishes in the first four races of the season -- seven top-10s in the first eight races -- giving every reason to believe he was on the road to repeat. But the path veered.
The team was penalized a total of 31 points in the spring for infractions at Texas and Dover. And while it is ironic that 31 is exactly the number of points he finished out of a Chase-guaranteed top-10 position, Keselowski has refused to lay blame solely on those instances.
He had accidents at Charlotte and Bristol and an engine problem at Atlanta.
“I feel like in the sports world, especially racing, you can only really control how fast you are and how well you execute,’’ Keselowski said. “You can’t control the luck side. We’ve had a lot of bad luck. … the shortfall of execution hasn’t made up for the luck issue.
“I do know we’ve left a lot more on the table than 25 points, which is what we lost (with penalty at Texas).’’
With one driver in NASCAR playoff contention and his champion driver not, team owner Roger Penske was dealing with mixed emotions, himself Saturday -- but no loss of purpose.
“Obviously, he (Keselowski) was in a tough spot to get what he needed to get,’’ Penske said on Richmond pit road after the race. “From that perspective, he’s a champion. He understands it.
“From where I am, we’ve got some Nationwide races to win here, and he can win that owners’ championship for me. So he’s got some unfinished business.’’
Even before the engines first fired up for the race weekend Keselowski was contemplative about how he’d handle the disappointment of not having a shot at the big trophy. He was stand-up, honest and forthright.
“I’d be ashamed if we didn’t run well, and we’re not running badly,’’ he said. “I think the scenario Tony (Stewart) had that year (he missed the Chase) shows how easy it is to miss a Chase because these are the best drivers in the world.
“And there are scenarios that are just, quite frankly, out of your control. You combine those with or two small mistakes and it all stacks up really quickly.’’
And in a sense, Saturday’s penultimate race was a microcosm of Keselowski’s season -- a promising start that gave way.
”That is just the way our cars have been this year,’’ Keselowski said. “They haven’t been good enough and we haven’t executed as well as we needed to. We have work to do.
“At the end of the day, the thing about points is it is the best measuring stick in sports. You know who deserves to be where because the results speak for themselves.
“We didn’t have enough results to get where we needed to be.’’