Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Keselowski, Road Courses and “Real Racing”

*ONE: Brad Keselowski Speaks the Truth on “Real Racing”*

Anyone that wasn’t thrilled with Sunday’s finish likely doesn’t have a pulse. Whether a fan had a dog in the Busch/Keselowski/Ambrose finale or not, the beating, banging, and sheer unpredictability of the last lap was easily the most compelling end to any race NASCAR has seen in 2012, and the best finish the Glen has seen since Kurt Busch and Robby Gordon off-roaded their way to the checkered flag in the 2006 Nationwide race.

While Busch predictably stormed off, justifiably for his Chase hits had taken a blow, but as expected after having been touched on the track, Keselowski was seen on pit road slapping high fives with Ambrose’s crew as the Aussie went jubilantly to victory Tlane. The words out of both their mouths were nearly identical: ”That’s the way racing is supposed to be.” Keselowski went even further and hit the nail on the head, calling Ambrose a class act because he was able to handle beating and banging without immediately becoming angry and causing a wreck.

Keselowski has received a ton of accolades the past 24 hours, and rightfully so, both for his show on the track Sunday as well as his conduct during the final lap mayhem that decided the event. While this display is one that truly does make him a contender in this year’s Chase, it more importantly proved something about one of the more polarizing figures in the sport today…namely, this guy gets it.

Being able to beat and bang without losing one’s mind is a way to earn respect on the track and to put on a better show. Who’s going to want to trade paint if their competitors are just going to get hot under the collar and end their day? For all the praise Kyle Busch gets for being the “real racer” the sport has been looking for, there’s a credible argument to be made that Keselowski is the best thing Cup racing has going for it right now.

Marcos Ambrose and team celebrated the win Sunday, and aren’t out of the conversation to celebrate something much larger come Richmond in September.

*TWO: Why Not Ambrose for a Chase Berth?*

All it took was some oil on the track, and suddenly Marcos Ambrose has brought himself and Richard Petty Motorsports into Chase contention. Though Ambrose is a distant 17th in points, one more win would put the No. 9 team into serious contention…and let’s not forget that a return to Bristol, one of Ambrose’s better ovals, is still on the docket.

This circumstance has been visited before from multiple angles; Ambrose won Watkins Glen a season ago and catapulted into sudden Chase contention, while the circumstance of a road ringer riding into a Chase berth on the backs of a road-course win and a mid-pack season on the ovals has been tossed around since the day the Chase was announced. The question should be, why not?

Sure, Ambrose got win number one courtesy of years of specializing in road racing down under, in a discipline that constitutes only two of 36 races on the calendar. That shouldn’t diminish the legitimacy or merit of the win. Joey Logano is in Chase contention courtesy of a win on a repaved Pocono oval where passing was at a premium, and winning the pole proved an enormous advantage. Ryan Newman performed admirably at Martinsville, but took the checkers only because of Clint Bowyer doing his bulldozer impression at the front of the field late in the going.

Though there’s never anything wrong with placing more emphasis on wins, this is the nature of the Chase. A win in a specialty race, a fluke win, they’re going to have the potential to put a mid-pack entrant in the championship field. Imagine if a 6-6 college football team could earn a Rose Bowl berth because they scored one upset win at home in a blinding rainstorm with half the opposing team suspended?

That makes no sense, even in college football, the only postseason that makes less sense than NASCAR’s.

*THREE: Stock Car Racing’s Best…on a Road Course?*

With lower speeds than are seen for much of the season, less banking in the turns and less track surface to work with, Sunday’s Cup race at the Glen saw tires actually mean something, passing was possible throughout the field, and made conserving equipment of paramount importance. Somehow, the oval track cars put on arguably their best show since Martinsville while turning both right and left.

Here’s the lesson learned. Back in the day, when NASCAR became the sport that everyone wishes it still was, the boxy, heavy stock cars proved hard to drive, far removed from the race tracks they were taking to. Today, the ovals are populated by custom-built race cars that are now so aerodynamically close to each other, they can’t pass. The one place where the stock cars prove difficult to drive and over-powered today is on the road courses. And low and behold, the on-track product has never been better.

*FOUR: Hornish Could Make this Work*

Penske Racing has reportedly set the Chase kickoff event at Chicago as the unofficial deadline for naming the new driver of the No. 22 car. The timing could not be better for Sam Hornish Jr., who is coming off a career weekend that saw him post top 5 finishes in both the Nationwide and Cup races. Heading into Michigan, Hornish has the No. 22 team at its highest point of the 2012 season and has closed the gap in the Nationwide title chase, poised to strike should the leaders find trouble at the second road race in as many weekends.

More importantly though, one only needs look at the upcoming race schedule on the Cup side to know that there’s a real chance for Hornish to continue the upward swing he’s on. No, top 5 finishes are not likely, but look at the circuits coming up. Hornish has finished in the top 5 in a Cup car at Michigan, scored the first top 15 of his NASCAR career ever at Atlanta in Nationwide competition and has improved his short-track game by leaps and bounds if Iowa was any indication just a few weeks back.

Penske has gone as far as to state that his organization has a level of loyalty to Hornish that will come into consideration as the replacement process continues. With that, Hornish is entering the most favorable schedule stretch he could have asked for to make an impression. As unlikely as it may have seemed from a performance perspective, Hornish has got a real chance to land this No. 22 car after all.

*FIVE: Besides, Logano is a Terrible Fit*

Hornish’s prospects have to be boosted by the fact that the only name continually in the rumor mill for the No. 22 is Joey Logano, the underachieving wunderkind of Joe Gibbs Racing. Take away Logano’s prowess in JGR’s menacing Nationwide Series Toyotas, and his Cup career has been anything but remarkable; two wins (one in a rain-shortened event), no Chase berths, and inconsistency abounds. Again, considering that Shell/Pennzoil are looking for an established winner, Logano for his lifetime development as a stock car racer isn’t really a step up from open-wheel convert Hornish.

More importantly though, Logano remains a very young driver and a very young sponsor rep who’s proven an odd fit for Home Depot since the day he took over for Tony Stewart in 2009. It’s a tough balancing act to watch the Game Stop driver try to hock home improvement. It’s equally as difficult to see him espousing the values of motor oil.

Lastly, Logano’s the third wheel in the Gibbs camp when compared to Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch–two drivers that have no shortage of success on their resumes and no shortage of attitude to go with their talents. If Joey couldn’t make that situation work, it’s hard to see being Brad Keselowski’s teammate going all that much better.

*Connect with Bryan!*

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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