Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Gauging Keselowski, Earnhardt Momentum Post-Kansas

We’re now exactly halfway to the Chase cutoff point and if things continue apace we’re certainly not going to be lacking excitement across the sweltering summer months; as the heat descends upon us, the scrabble for Chase positions and the inherent tension of making the big dance ratchets up notch by notch and week by week.

One driver who will be about a billion times happier with that is the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Penske Racing Dodge, Big Bad Brad Keselowski who eked out his second ever victory in two-plus seasons (albeit thanks to fuel mileage) which is where we’ll start this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.

ONE: Big Win for the Blue Deuce and Penske Racing

Few drivers have announced themselves on the Cup circuit with quite the clamor that surrounded the third-generation racer Keselowski. The Michigan native won at Talladega in just his fifth Cup race in a finish that saw Cousin Carl Edwards go airborne into the catchfence and come perilously close to causing an unprecedented level of carnage. But after such a rambunctious start, Keselowski’s first full year at the Cup level was nothing if not disappointing – picking up just two top 10s and finishing a distant 25th in the standings.

This season, through the first nine races, Keselowski had a best finish of 15th but in the past few weeks, results have picked up notably. A third place at Darlington and a strong run at Charlotte in the 600 suggested the situation was looking up for both driver and also the Penske organization as a whole.

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Brad Keselowski Stretches His Fuel to Win 2011 STP 400 at Kansas

It’s an improvement that’s not lost on team owner Roger Penske: “I think we’ve made a lot of progress the last several weeks,” said the Captain. “People haven’t really noticed it… but this is a real step-up for us. These are the tracks that were tough for us, the 1.5-miles. It looks like we have a handle on these now. The engines: we’ve had good power, but we need more. And we need better handling. We’ve added more engineering capability this year; we’re starting to see it now that we didn’t have last year.”

And with Kurt Busch, who spent much of the early-mid part of the season spewing profanities at all and sundry, also running much better the signs are much more promising and as Keselowski noted in victory lane one more win might just land him in the Chase. And speaking of such matters…

TWO: The Wildcard Factor Might Just Be the Wildest of Them All

As things stand, Jeff Gordon’s Phoenix win is currently enough to make him eligible for the final Chase transfer spot (beating out the Biff who currently sits in 12th), but as we head deeper and deeper into the summer stretch of races the premium that will be placed on wins will only rise. Simply put, one win might be enough to make you Chase eligible – provided you’re in the top 20 in points – and two wins all but guarantees you a spot.

The new wrinkle in the rules in the antithesis of points racing and this humble scribe thinks it’s fantastic. It’s something I wrote about a few weeks back and it’s only going to become a bigger and bigger factor each week. As an exuberant Keselowski pointed out in victory lane one more win could see him locked into the Chase (again, provided he can make it into the top 20 – he sits in 21st seven points out right now.)

Of course without the benefit of a year to see how this system will play out it’s hard to be quite so definitive but there’s little doubt, for those not locked into the top 10 in points, the value of a win might have never been higher. Just ask someone like Denny Hamlin, who’s showing signs of life after a tepid start, about how important a win would be this weekend at the Tricky Triangle.

THREE: Boogity, Boogity Bye Bye

And while we’re on the topic of the 2.5-mile triangle shaped track at Pocono it will certainly be great to herald the return of TNT for their traditional six-race portion of the schedule. Nestled between the monoliths of FOX and ESPN, the cable channel’s coverage of NASCAR has been nothing short of excellent in the past few seasons with the likes of Kyle Petty providing the sort of analysis and reasoning Darrell Waltrip wouldn’t recognize if it socked him in the kipper.

The predilection of both the FOX and ESPN broadcasts to unnecessary hype and manufactured storylines is such that TNT’s coverage is like a still small voice of calm. Race Buddy, their interactive component, is another key piece of the TNT puzzle and it’s just a shame it can’t be used throughout the Cup Series schedule. Regardless, I’m going to sit back, put my feet up and enjoy the TNT coverage – they do it right and there’s a lot to be said for that.

FOUR: $150K Well Spent

And speaking of doing it right – or at least doing it proper old school, I can’t help but feel Richard Childress might just consider his $150K fine as money well spent since he finally got the chance to mete out some old fashioned justice to Kyle Busch. Unlike his driver, Kevin Harvick, who chose to punch a helmeted Busch (yeah like that’s going to send a message) Childress got the job done in the garage post race, amazingly away from the prying public eye.

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Full Throttle: NASCAR Owners Should Know Better Than Drivers

Clearly, this was a beat down that had been a while in the making and judging by RC’s non-apology statement on the fine it’s clear that if he had his druthers, he’d do it all over again. Yes, $150K is a lot of money but for a man not exactly short of a cent or two and given the money will go to charity, I can’t help but feel that behind closed doors Childress will have a little chuckle or at the very least a wry grin

FIVE: It’ll Come, Dale Junior

Wry grins are something of a specialty for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and that’s what we saw from the veteran as for a second straight week a fuel mileage/strategy gamble didn’t quite work out, but I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before Junior heads to victory lane. Recovering from a self-inflicted mid-race spin, the wheelman of the No. 88 Chevy, stole a march on the field and drove his way to a second consecutive first-loser finish.

It’s these kind of finishes that separate the elite drivers and as Junior noted post-race: “You always scratch your head when Jimmie [Johnson] and them guys look like they’re out of it and next thing you turn around at the end of the race and they’re right there in the middle of it. And you’re like: How in the world? So now I guess I’m on that side of the fence. I see some of it and I see why it happens.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again), NASCAR needs Junior to run well and under the expert tutelage of Steve Letarte that’s precisely what’s happening. I’m just glad we won’t have to listen to DW weeping tears of joy for June Bug when the win finally comes.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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