News & Media

Happy Hour: Keselowski has some work to do at Martinsville

October 27, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Even before Brad Keselowski got momentarily loose in front of Jimmie Johnson early in Saturday's Happy Hour at Martinsville Speedway, he already had the attention of the five-time Cup Series champion.

Johnson, starting on the pole for Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500, can't help but think about Keselowski's 32nd qualifying position and the impact that could potentially have with only four races left in the season.


Race Lineup
2.B. Vickers97.53319.415
3.Ky. Busch97.42719.436
4.J. Burton97.39219.443
5.D. Hamlin97.38219.445
2.J. Gordon95.89819.746
3.J. Montoya95.79619.767
4.J. Johnson95.77719.771
5.Ky. Busch95.72819.781
2.Earnhardt Jr.95.66019.795
3.J. Gordon95.66019.795
4.Ky. Busch95.50119.828
5.D. Hamlin95.49219.830

"I don't want to count them out [this week]," said Johnson, who trails Keselowski by seven points. "I think it would be foolish for me to sit here and think they're going to be in harm's way back there and not be able to race their way through."

But the numbers don't lie. Keselowski has never finished better than ninth in five starts at Martinsville where Johnson has won six of the past 16 Cup races.

So, the door is open for Johnson, who posted the sixth-fastest lap in Happy Hour, and possibly for Denny Hamlin, 13 points behind Keselowski in the the standings and fifth-fastest in final practice.

Qualifying has not been Keselowski's strength. He's started no better than 10th in any Chase race, yet finished no worse than 11th and in the top 10 in five of the first six races.

"I'd much rather race towards the front than qualify toward the front if I had to pick between the two," said Keselowski, whose crew chief Paul Wolfe opted for an entirely new setup during Happy Hour.

This season, Keselowski has rallied from the 31st starting spot to finish fourth at Pocono, gone from 28th to fifth at Phoenix and, last week, from 25th to eighth at Kansas.

But Martinsville is a different animal -- a .526-mile layout, on which cars can go a lap down in the wink of an eye and two if they're not careful in the pits.

"If you can get any Chaser a lap down -- and put them in the situation where they're not the lucky dog, [that] would be fantastic," Johnson said. "[But], you're going to get a chance to get your lap back, so one [lap] isn't a death sentence by any means."

Happy Hour provided marginal improvement for Keselowski. After running only 27th-fastest in Saturday's morning practice, Keselowski's team was able to improve his handling in the corners and the 28-year-old driver was able to turn the 13th-fastest lap in final practice.

Still, his lap at 95.21 mph was a far cry from Brian Vickers (95.87 mph), Jeff Gordon (95.66 mph) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (also 95.66), who turned the fastest laps.

Maintaining track position will be vital on Sunday and even SRT engineer Howard Comstock has to admit that Keselowski's starting spot looms as a major disadvantage.

"It's not overblown," Comstock said. "You look at statistics of people that have been able to win this qualifying outside the top half of the field, the numbers are pretty sparse.

"If there are enough cautions, at some point during the day you're going to be at the front of the field and at some point during the day you're going to be at the back of the field," Comstock said. "But the danger in trying to get from the back to the front is what's not good."

There are other perils at Martinsville, particularly entering and exiting the pits. Johnson should have clear sailing out of pit box No. 1. Keselowski will be mired in the middle of pit lane with stall No. 22.

Then, there's the traffic situation which can be as hard on the brakes as it is on the sheet metal.

"It's tough being in traffic here all day long because the track is so tight," Comstock says. "It's so small, there's such a small margin of error. ... You wear out the brakes. When you're in the middle of the pack, you can't get a lot of air to the components that need cooling. It's tougher when you're racing in the middle of the field."