Sweat pouring down his brow, fresh off of 500 laps at Bristol runner-up finisher Brad Keselowski was careful with his words. After all, just two years ago Penske’s now-championship driver came out of nowhere to snag a title right from under Jimmie Johnson’s nose.
“I wouldn’t say it’s Hendrick and Penske yet,” he said, being asked if Saturdays 1-2 finish between he and teammate Joey Logano was a counterpunch to NASCAR’s most dominant team this season. “To date in the season, I think it’s been that way… but let the chips fall where they may.”
Well right now, most in the know are pushing their chips to only two places come Chase time. There’s Hendrick Motorsports, clearly dominant over the late spring and summer while running off eight victories in the last 14 points races. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson appear in position to make it two, if not three HMS cars in the Homestead Final Four within the next few months. But without Kasey Kahne, who looks to be on the outside of the playoffs looking in after a Bristol disaster there’s no way those Chevys can pull a clean sweep. Someone, somewhere has to appear as a rival even if it’s merely filling out the field.
That’s where Penske is trying real, real hard to make a case. Winning three of the last 14 races, with Keselowski and a dominant Joey Logano Saturday night at Bristol they’re the only other organization with a pulse. At a track where trifectas are a rarity, Penske drivers stepped up and swept the Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series races in Thunder Valley with a flair that allowed them to flex some muscle. Keselowski won in Trucks, his first career victory in that division while youngster Ryan Blaney followed up with a win Friday night in Nationwide. But Logano’s run, with Keselowski right behind him was the most impressive during a Bristol Cup summer shootout that was mentally grueling, physically draining and highly competitive up front.
“You’ve got to hustle the car so hard,” Logano said. “I feel like Bristol’s the most physically demanding racetrack, not only for the driver but the race car. You’re just always on the gas or the brake or in the turn. There’s never really a break.”
The competition can’t say the same, as Logano slowly broke them apart after the race’s final caution for debris on Lap 437. Restarting sixth, he was second by Lap 450 and quickly disposed of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth to take control of the race. Keselowski followed, close behind as the duo put together a 1-2 Penske punch that reminded onlookers of how cohesive the two-car program really is. One of the most prestigious races, in the eyes of both fans and peers taking the August night race in dominant fashion always makes a statement – while serving as important setup for the future. Last year’s winner, Matt Kenseth, became Johnson’s main Chase rival during a ten-race playoff where he fell just short.
“The momentum kind of speaks for itself when you’re running well,” Keselowski said Saturday night when asked about the team’s internal strategy. “I don’t really respectfully want to get into any of the other details about our teams and what they do. That’s kind of proprietary to our group and something we’re proud of and want to keep our cards close to our chest, but I think the results speak for themselves and we need to keep rolling.”
It’s a tactical confidence, throw-that-cryptic-quote-out-there-to-get-people-talking Kes only reaches for when he knows the Penske organization is firing on all cylinders. It’s also an emotional strength he’s been able to filter down to Logano, now in his second season as a teammate and having the career year in Sprint Cup everyone expected from the start. Doubling his career win total, from three to six over the course of 2014 Logano spent much of his post-race presser crowing about his championship chances, one week after just missing a victory at Michigan to point leader Jeff Gordon.
“We can win this thing,” Logano said of the Chase. “I feel very confident. [Rivals] can underestimate us. They can overestimate us. I don’t really care.”
So what we’re seeing, though as this duo pumps itself up one week after Hendrick’s triumph at Michigan is a bit of a pre-fight buildup we don’t often see. Typically, the month of August is reserved for Chase “bubble” drivers, those trying to fight their way into the field even though they’re longshots once they get there. The battle for 12th in points used to be highlighted; now, it’s the battle for four remaining spots in an expanded field of 16. Greg Biffle, Kahne, rookie Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer are supposed to be the main storylines.
But the main title contenders, from September through November aren’t letting those longshots get in the way. Instead of a rash of “wild card” winners, throughout July and August to lock other drivers into the Chase we’ve only been able to muster two, at two very expected locales: Daytona (Aric Almirola) and Watkins Glen (AJ Allmendinger). Hendrick and Penske have taken care of the rest, dispatching Cinderella while smashing her glass slipper with a “no mercy” march to the front. Jamie McMurray was the latest victim, a very unlikely Bristol victory in the making until a final pit stop left him behind the Penske cars and without the necessary adjustments to keep up. Logano, Keselowski, and a fistful of extra speed took care of the rest, leaving the No. 1 car sitting eighth and wasting 148 laps led by the checkered flag.
Are there others in contention for the title? Kenseth looked good Saturday night, and the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are always dangerous. But Denny Hamlin was torn in two, fighting for the lead with Kevin Harvick and looked flustered, not focused after the wreck. Kyle Busch? He was meeting with a crew chief, after the race who referred to him as “whiny” on the radio after their fourth straight result of 36th or worse. It’s hard to see that group turning it on, just like it’s near impossible to see Stewart-Haas Racing in top form every week (Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch) with their fearless leader in exile and no timetable upon which he’ll return to racing.
That leaves Hendrick versus Penske, five drivers for four spots unless someone wants to pull off an upset bid. After Bristol, the chances of that happening appear more remote than they’ve been.