Race Weekend Central

Perception Creates An Imperfect Reality: Sixth Place vs. Title No. 6

Three races left in the Sprint Cup season. Two drivers left in Chase contention. And one big problem for NASCAR: a title battle fans believe might be over.

Make no mistake; Brad Keselowski is doing everything possible to change that. The Miller Lite Miracle was something special at Martinsville, Kes turning a 32nd-place starting spot into a sixth-place finish, one for the moral victory column. How exceptional was that for NASCAR’s King of the Twitterverse (and perhaps a reconnection to relevancy)? In five previous starts at the paperclip, @Keselowski’s best finish was ninth. Until a last-ditch effort to win, staying out during the race’s penultimate caution, the driver of the No. 2 Dodge had led a grand total of two laps at NASCAR’s shortest track.

Brad Keselowski drove his heart out at Martinsville to keep himself solidly in title contention. But even with a career-best, sixth-place finish at the paperclip the No. 48 team and rival Jimmie Johnson pulled out in front in the Chase.

“This team has a tremendous amount of heart,” he said, pacing the field for eight circuits in all before fading. “I’m just proud of them. You just have to be in position where you’ve got a shot at it, and we’re doing the things it’s going to take to be in contention at Homestead.”

To stay in the race, for Keselowski Sunday took one big word: guts. A decision from the cockpit, to stay out on old tires left him in front for one nervewracking restart that could have ended it all. Jumping ahead, despite being clearly slower Kes then became a roadblock for Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville’s master before the freshness of Goodyear Tires took over. The end result was a “hang on for dear life,” outside the top 5 effort but he still earned one point more than by taking the “safe” way out; more importantly, J.J. was served a 4th Quarter dose of mental frustration. It may have been Johnson’s best Chase performance, one that earned him the point lead but Keselowski was there, right in step at his rival’s best track remaining on the playoff schedule.

“I knew they had a poor qualifying effort,” Johnson said. “But they would be there when the checkered fell. They’re a good team.”

“I have to expect that. We all do. That goes for the rest of the year.”

It was classic J.J., on point in his post-race presser who was so politically correct he could have been confused for a major presidential candidate. No mental games will be played with Keselowski, not this time; he’s a strong opponent who’s clearly proven to move to the beat of his own drummer. The No. 2 team has been unfazed, taking this challenge farther than anyone could have expected with a “lame duck” manufacturer, a teammate who won’t even be racing in Cup full-time come 2013 and a pressure point that hits uncharted territory for them each week. More than ever, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kes actually comes up and makes a race out of this championship come Homestead.

The problem comes in convincing the fan base of that. We _want_ this type of photo finish again, the way in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards went toe-to-toe down the stretch in 2011. But in the midst of hopeful optimism comes the reality of every reasonable indicator: history, experience, statistics that tells us it’s over. Johnson may only be up two, but based on the track record it might as well be 2,000. Three times, the No. 48 team had led the point standings with three races left: 2008, 2009, 2010. Their track record on going on to hold the trophy is 3-for-3.

Compare that to Keselowski, whose best Cup points finish entering 2012 was fifth place. That’s an experience gap of the highest order, a David running his second career Chase versus a 59-race winner who’s already won five. NASCAR has been a sport based on gradual improvement, where legends get challenged over a period of time before falling back to earth. Case in point? Only three times, in the sport’s modern era has a first-time Cup champion made a career-high points jump as big as Keselowski’s would be (from fifth to first): Alan Kulwicki (1992), Jeff Gordon (1995), and Matt Kenseth (2002). Instead, the sport is littered with stories of men who lost a championship before they won one. Rusty Wallace, second to Bill Elliott in ’88 before taking the title a year later; Bobby Labonte, bridesmaid to Dale Jarrett in 1999 before flipping roles at the turn of the Century; and Tony Stewart, a distant second to Jeff Gordon in ’01 before capturing the hardware himself in ’02 are the most prominent examples of late.

Forcing rivals to play runner-up is a role Johnson has relished, relegating those who challenge him into a life spent in second place. Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Mark Martin are just three who have tried in vein to get title number one, giving their best shot only to get crushed under the strength of No. 48. So Johnson gaining the upper hand is a psychological edge, one Keselowski might deny but fans feel as the inevitable sixth championship close at hand.

“I feel as focused and prepared,” he said Sunday. “As I’ve ever been in my career.”

It certainly looks that way. On paper, if we went by the stats this one would be worse – a blowout of the highest order. At the last three racetracks, Johnson’s average finishes are a healthy 9.7, 5.3, and 13.5 over a long career. Keselowski? He’s registered a 25.2 at Texas – with no career top-10 finishes – followed by a ho-hum 22.2 at Phoenix and a mediocre 20.2 at the season finale. Forget catching J.J.; those stats, repeated might not be enough for second place.

Head-to-head, in 2012 it’s also been a No. 48 by TKO. Johnson led the most laps at Texas in the Spring en route to second; Keselowski, by Lap 80 was forever trailing the five-time champ, suffered mechanical problems and wound up 36th. At Phoenix, Johnson led 55 laps and wound up a conservative fourth; his rival, while one spot behind never had the speed to stay in victory contention. Those numbers, if repeated would leave J.J. merely needing to last longer than start-and-parkers at Homestead to clinch the title.

So is it really over? As Denny Hamlin showed Sunday, all it takes is one bad break and suddenly the points will change on a dime. But the fans have seen this movie too many times before. Crew chief Chad Knaus doesn’t let an engine fail; if it did, you feel like he’d climb under the hood, fill the role of a broken piston and will the No. 48 to finish ninth. Unless there’s a major catastrophe, a Goodyear tire blown or being in the wrong place at the wrong time that means Keselowski and Wolfe, the Johnson-Knaus of the future must grow up a year early and beat them on merit.

It’s exactly the position Johnson wants to be in. For no matter how much you hype up a miracle, it’s hard to make that type of thing happen for all ten weeks.

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