News & Media

Happy Hour: After being also-ran, Keselowski now the one to beat

October 12, 2012, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Only two years ago when the Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders rolled into Charlotte Motor Speedway for the fall face, Brad Keselowski wasn't just on the outside looking in.

He was way, way on the outside looking in.

Keselowski finished 25th in the point standings in that 2010 season, his first full campaign in the Cup Series.

Charlotte Speeds

Practice 1
2.M. Martin191.44228.207
3.M. Kenseth191.33328.223
4.J. Logano191.15728.249
5.J. Gordon190.97528.276
2.K. Kahne186.59328.940
3.K. Harvick186.57428.943
4.J. Johnson186.36128.976
5.M. Martin186.27828.989
2.R. Smith188.00928.722
3.M. Martin187.90428.738
4.J. Johnson187.87828.742
5.P. Menard187.40228.815

This year, Keselowski comes into this Saturday night's Bank of America 500 as the Chase points leader. As the series approaches the halfway mark of the 10-race Chase, Keselowski currently rates as the one all other Chasers must beat.

"The way I look at it, we've run four races of the 10 -- and, if you do the math, that's 40 percent of the way but still a long ways to go," Keselowski said. "But it's certainly a great start for our whole team to have won two [Chase] races and finished sixth and seventh in the other two. That's certainly the start that we all dreamed of as a team. We just have to keep that run up, which we know is not going to be easy."

Keslowski's No. 2 Dodge was eighth-fastest in the final Cup practice that ran for one hour and concluded at 6:50 p.m. ET Friday, with a top lap turned at 187.363 miles per hour. Kyle Busch topped the speed chart with a top lap of 188.383 mph, followed by the surprising Regan Smith, whose fastest lap of 188.009 mph came in the No. 88 Chevrolet he will drive in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out with a concussion.

Rounding out the top five on the Happy Hour speed chart were Mark Martin (187.905 mph), five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (187.878 mph) and Paul Menard (187.402 mph).

Johnson, Keselowski's closest pursuer in the standings, has won six times at Charlotte -- tying Hall-of-Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for most career Cup wins at the 1.5-mile track. He's 14 points behind Keselowski and would like to grab his record seventh victory at CMS, but hasn't won there since this fall race in 2009. It's his only victory at Charlotte since the track was repaved prior to the 2006 races -- right after Johnson won four races in a row in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

"I think we'll be real competitive," Johnson said. "We had an advantage with the old surface and then they ground it and we were still on top of things, and then the repave was really a great equalizer. I think it kind of tipped things toward Kasey Kahne's hand, if anyone's.

"So we really hope to be back to our winning ways here. This would be a good time to have that happen."

Johnson admitted that he's a little surprised to be looking up at Keselowski atop the standings as the Chase approaches its midway point.

"I'm not shocked, but if you asked me before the Chase started who would be leading at the halfway mark, I would put them in the mix, but I wouldn't put them out front," Johnson said.

Keselowski and Johnson are followed in the standings by Denny Hamlin (23 points behind the leader and nine behind Johnson) and Kahne (36 behind Keselowski and 22 behind Johnson). Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 at CMS last May, earning his fourth career Cup win and first since 2008 at the track.

Not surprisingly, Hamlin and Kahne were among the fastest Chasers during Friday's final practice, with Hamlin (187.363 mph) sixth and Kahne ninth (186.884 mph). The remainder of the 12-man Chase field was bunched up 12th through 18th on the speed chart, with Tony Stewart (186.355 mph) 12th and pole-sitter Greg Biffle (186.008 mph) bringing up the rear of that group.

Keselowski has never won a Cup race at Charlotte, but he's won two Nationwide Series races -- in 2010 and earlier this year. The fifth-place finish he earned at the Coca-Cola 600 last May was the first time in six Cup races that he's managed to finish higher than 12th.

Of course, Keselowski doesn't have to win Saturday night. He just needs to finish high enough to maintain his points lead or perhaps add to it. He insisted he's taking nothing for granted after escaping dangerous Talladega with a seventh-place finish.

"There are certainly a lot of great cars in the field," Keselowski said. "The 11 [car of Hamlin] and the 5 [driven by Kahne] are going to run really well here this weekend. Jeff Gordon has run really well over this stretch as well -- so nothing is going to be given to us, that's for sure.

"I'm very proud of where our team stands as of now. We're hoping to keep that run up and all signs point to a great group of guys that I believe can get the job done. So I'm really looking forward to this stretch. Charlotte is a good week to prove ourselves again. I felt very fortunate to get through Talladega with the outing that we had and to have the points lead. We're going to take advantage of it and capitalize off it."

Johnson and others hope to have something to say about that.

"I still love the race track," Johnson said. "The 1.5-mile tracks look similar to a lot of people -- but inside the car and on the race track, this one drives way different than any of them. It's fun."