|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
DOVER, Del. -- Brad Keselowski's comments after winning Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway say all you may need to know about where this Chase is heading.
"Yeah!" Keselowski yelled over his in-car radio to crew chief Paul Wolfe. "Hell, yeah, Paul! No weaknesses, man. Hell, yeah!"
No weaknesses, indeed.
The 28-year-old Penske Racing driver has won two of the first three Chase races, at Chicagoland on speed and at Dover on fuel mileage. His win at Dover came on a track considered to be a weakness because of a previous average finish of 17.0 with no top-10s.
Couple the wins with a solid sixth at New Hampshire and Keselowski is five points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson with seven races to go.
If you hadn't taken Keselowski seriously as a contender to win the Sprint Cup title before now, it's time to start.
"He's been a contender," said Johnson, who ran the final 47 laps at 80 percent to conserve fuel and finish fourth. "Every week everybody wants to be the one to pick the guy that is going to win the championship. We don't know. We have Talladega next week.
"But he's shown all year long he's plenty capable of winning races and being a threat for the championship, and he's doing it."
Keselowski appreciates the compliment. He actually predicted before the race -- jokingly -- that whoever won would become the favorite to win the title, as seemingly happens after every Chase race.
But he's not ready to put on the crown. He understands there's a long way to go, which makes him even more of a threat to win it all.
You can't win the title by getting ahead of yourself.
"There's a reason why it's 10 rounds," Keselowski said of the Chase. "By no means do I feel like we're the favorite. Certainly, we're not the underdogs probably at this point."
There is that little-known Dover jinx. No driver who has led the standings after leaving the "Monster Mile" has gone on to win the Chase since the format was implemented in 2004.
But you get the feeling Keselowski isn't worried about such things. As Wolfe talked about how only eight cars were left on the lead lap after the first caution came out in the middle of green-flag stops, this flamboyant kid from Michigan was tweeting on his cellphone.
Pressure? He doesn't seem to understand the meaning of it.
He's also classy, recognizing the passing of legendary motorsports journalist Chris Economaki before getting into how he won.
"Brad's ability to get through the traffic ... you watch Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and [Denny] Hamlin, he's right up there with them," team owner Roger Penske said. "He didn't make any mistakes."
His pit crew made one, struggling with the jack on the left side to put their driver in danger of going a lap down early. But instead of panicking, everyone stayed calm, particularly Keselowski with then-leader Kyle Busch hot on his bumper.
|Championship contender Brad Keselowski is in the Chase driver's seat after winning two of the first three playoff races.|
He pulled away and showed then he had the speed to win if he didn't have to focus on running the final 89 laps amazingly on one tank of fuel.
An estimated 72-80 laps was considered a great fuel run all day, by the way.
"That run to me was one of the most important runs of the day," Keselowski said. "It showed we have a strong car, that in equal track position, footing, we could run just as fast ... faster than the lead group. I was hoping to prove that out, but didn't get the chance."
That may have been the most important run of Keselowski's Chase. He was an afterthought for much of the day. Busch dominated, leading a race-high 302 of 400 laps. But Busch was short on fuel and had to pit with 11 laps remaining, leaving him with a seventh-place finish he didn't appreciate.
"Thank you, TRD ..." Busch said sarcastically over his radio, referring to Toyota Racing Development, then added a series of expletives.
Hamlin, Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, wasn't very happy, either.
"It's so frustrating," he said after giving up the lead after Busch gave it to him. "It's like all the hard work that you do -- it just doesn't pay off."
It did for Keselowski, who showed last year at Kansas he's pretty good at squeezing every drop of fuel out of his Dodge.
Another layer of no weaknesses.
And an edge over Johnson and Hamlin if it comes down to beating them, which it could with no driver behind them within 24 points of the lead.
"They don't slow down a lot and then they save fuel," Johnson said. "That's a tough combination to find."
That's a tough combination to beat.
"I don't know if I would step up our game any more than this," Keselowski said.
If he does, if he can, then the rest of the Chase field is in trouble.
"That was the type of performance that we needed to stay in this championship, and we showed that we're going to continue to be there every week," Wolfe said.
A lot of drivers are going to need that kind of effort to get back in the Chase. Fourth-place Clint Bowyer is 25 points back after finishing ninth. Defending champion Tony Stewart is tied with Kasey Kahne, 32 back after finishing 20th.
And it may be time to give up on Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning his first title. He finished 11th to fall 39 points back.
The way Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin are running, that'll be tough to overcome.
It's certainly hard to see Keselowski fading away. He and Wolfe have that championship chemistry that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have turned into a dynasty.
They have that same understanding that it's not the driver or the crew chief who wins races and titles.
"It's how you perform as a team," Keselowski said. "I can't emphasize the word 'team' strongly enough because that's what this sport is. It's easy to get caught up looking in stat books and look at a driver and forget about teams.
"That's what this was today, a team effort."
No, it was a championship effort.
No weaknesses, man.