News & Media

For many Chase hopefuls, Keselowski holds key

September 11, 2011, David Caraviello,

RICHMOND, Va. -- Forget the scenarios, forget the number-crunching, forget the possibilities. Saturday night's event at Richmond International Raceway, which will determine the 12-driver field that competes for the Sprint Cup championship, is in many ways all about Brad.

Brad Keselowski holds the key for several challengers hoping to either maintain their position in the top 10 or sneak into the Chase as wild cards. A mediocre run by the Penske Racing driver, on a track where he's never finished better than 14th in a Sprint Cup car, essentially maintains the status quo. But should the No. 2 car vie for the victory as it has so many times in recent weeks, and perform well enough to vault Keselowski into the top 10 in points, the picture could change considerably.

Behind the Wheel

In his blog for NASCAR.COM, Brad writes about how important being in the top 10 is; he can receive Chase bonus points for his wins.

Keselowski is assured of at least a wild-card berth by virtue of his three race wins on the season. He enters Richmond 11th in points, 23 behind 10th-place Tony Stewart and 25 behind ninth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., the only drivers in the top 10 who have yet to clinch their positions in the playoff. If Keselowski overtakes either of those drivers Saturday night, he'd not only potentially knock them out of playoff contention, but also open the door for anyone from 13th-place A.J. Allmendinger to 23rd-place David Ragan to crash the party as a surprise wild card.

"I don't think I have any target. In fact, I think I'm the one without a target," Keselowski said Friday. "I think it's the other two [Earnhardt and Stewart] that have targets on them. They're not just racing me, they're racing what, are there 14 guys who are eligible? Because if I get in, those other guys are in really good shape. If I get in the top 10, I'm in really good shape. I think they're the ones with targets on their backs, not me."

How realistic is the prospect of making up 23 or more points? Consider that Keselowski did just that two weeks ago, when he gained 31 on Stewart by virtue of his victory at Bristol. A similar effort Saturday could knock out either Earnhardt or Stewart, neither of whom has won this season, and would be denied Chase berths unless there were no other drivers with victories inside the top 20. As it stands now, Denny Hamlin and Paul Menard could lock themselves into the Chase with a win, and Ragan and Marcos Ambrose could do the same if they can win and climb into the top 20 in points. But Keselowski moving into the top 10 would open a wild-card position and create a potential win-to-get-in situation for anyone down to Ragan in 23rd.

"Certainly, there are a lot of people who have my best interests in mind," Keselowski said. "But whether they remember that in the race car is yet to be seen. We'll just have to figure out how that works. I'm not quite so sure how each and every one of them will react to it. Everyone reacts differently to the pressures that making the Chase entails. We'll just have to see. I hope they give me some breaks. It's in their best interests. It would be kind of dumb if they didn't. We'll just have to see how they all react. You don't know. Every driver is different."

Earnhardt can clinch a Chase position if he finishes 20th or better, regardless of what Keselowski does. Earnhardt hasn't finished that poorly since Kentucky in early July. He has one victory at Richmond, but has placed 21st or worse in four of his past five starts on the .75-mile oval. He said he won't be concerned with where Keselowski -- who once drove for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports Nationwide team -- is running on Saturday night.

"It only matters when the race is over where everybody is at," Earnhardt said. "We need to work on our car and think about our car and concentrate on what our race car is doing and how to make our race car better. We'll be pretty occupied with how the car drives and how the car feels and whether it's good or bad. I'll be paying attention to that stuff myself, as good as I can, and that's about all we'll do."

Earnhardt, who last made the Chase in 2008, didn't seem stressed by the situation. "I'm not really all that worried about it, to be honest with y'all," he said. "I feel like we're a good enough team to get in there, I've felt that way all year long. I feel like we will get the job done. I've felt like that all year, that we would. But if we for some reason don't get that done, it's just something you have to deal with."

Stewart can clinch by finishing 18th or better, regardless of what any other driver does. Although he's finished worse than that in two of the past four weeks, he's placed 10th or better at Richmond in nine of his past 13 starts in the Virginia capital. "If we're running in the top 10 like I feel we should be, we won't have to worry about it either way," said Stewart, who is coming off a third-place run Tuesday in Atlanta and has missed the Chase just once, in 2006.

As usual, though, the potential for drama swirls around Keselowski, who could upend the bottom of the Chase field with a strong performance and a little help Saturday night. Richmond is far from his best track -- he finished 36th here in the spring -- but he also had never cracked the top 13 in Bristol until he broke through there in a big way with his victory two weeks ago.

Richmond: Chase clinch scenarios

Three spots remain
Fourteen drivers are mathematically eligible | Four control their own destinies
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A finish of 20th or better clinches a spot. Even if Keselowski does knock Earnhardt out of the top 10, he could still earn a Chase berth if there is only one winner from spots 11th to 02th.
Tony Stewart: A finish of 18th or better clinches a spot. Like Earnhardt, even if Keselowski does knock Stewart out of the top 10, Stewart could still earn a Chase berth if there is only one winner from spots 11th to 20th.
Denny Hamlin: A win, and he's in. Hamlin doesn't have to win, though. If he stays ahead of all one-win drivers, and there are no other two-win drivers inside the top 20, he's in. Also, if Keselowski does vault into the top 10, Hamlin could still make the Chase if there is a two-win driver from 11th to 20th as long as he's higher in points than any other one-win driver.
A.J. Allmendinger: Allmendinger is where the wild card drama starts to ratchet up. A win is the onlything that matters and he'll need a win and movement up the points to nab the tie-breaker. He finished seventh at RIR in April.
Clint Bowyer: Of the winless drivers, Bowyer might be the best bet. Bowyer won here in 2008, and has an average finish of 9.5. He needs a win, and some help.
Greg Biffle: One of six winless drivers who won in 2010, Biffle's best Richmond finish was third in 2005. He needs a win, and some help.
Martin Truex Jr.: Two of his past four finishes have been in the top five. His best finish at RIR is fifth in 2008. He needs a win, and some help.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne, who needs a win and some help, won at Richmond in 2005, his first career victory.
Joey Logano: Needs a win and help. His best finish at RIR was fourth in 2010.
Mark Martin: Needs a win and help; he won at Richmond in 1990.
Paul Menard: Win, and he's in. His best finish at RIR is 16th in 2007.
Marcos Ambrose: If he wins, and gets into the top 20, he's in. Two of his past three Richmond finishes were in the top 10.
Juan Montoya: Needs a win and help. His best finish was sixth in May of last year.
David Ragan: If he wins, and gets into the top 20, he's in. He finished fourth in April, and third in 2007.

"I'm excited to come back here for the second time this year, because I think if you look at our team, I think we've run a lot better at tracks we've come back to a second time in a season," Keselowski said. "I'm kind of expecting the same here at Richmond."