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Wednesday, October 24, 2012
What awaits Keselowski and Wolfe?

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

Musings, wondering and figuring, as the Chase heads down the stretch of the final four -- races and, it appears, drivers left with chances …

You have to figure the point most worth following this Sunday was raised by ESPN's Rusty Wallace last Sunday. His observation at Kansas just might be the key storyline at Martinsville.

"I really do think that Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski are the brand-new Chad [Knaus] and Jimmie Johnson," Wallace said.

Kesleowski
With two Chase wins and a seven-point lead in the standings, Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are at the top of their game.

If that is so -- if Wolfe and Keselowski are arriving as the most unflappable, strategically innovative crew chief-driver tandem in the game -- they will somehow rise to a towering occasion Sunday.

There has been no greater crucible in this Chase for the Blue Deuce duo than the shortest track in Cup, the flat, 0.526-mile "paper clip." This will be the most pressure under the clearest onslaught and the greatest disadvantage they have faced.

Keselowski's closest pursuers, Johnson (minus-seven points in the Chase) and Denny Hamlin (minus-20) have, between them, won nine of the past 12 races and 10 of the past 16 at Martinsville. Johnson might well have won again there in April if not for Ryan Newman's rambunctious restart on the green-white-checkered that took out both Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

When you consider average finishes at Martinsville -- Johnson 5.8, Hamlin 6.4, Keselowski a mediocre 13.4 -- then the Chase appears highly likely to tighten, and Keselowski unlikely to leave the rustic place atop the standings.

But remember, Keselowski has started only five races there, to Johnson's 21 and Hamlin's 14. Both Johnson and Hamlin got their first Martinsville wins on their sixth starts there, Johnson in 2004 and Hamlin in '08.

Johnson didn't really hit his dominant streak there until '06-'07, Hamlin until '09-'10.

So there is precedent for a rising driver and crew chief to figure out the paper clip in one shot.

Trouble is, Keselowski-Wolfe will be going head-to-head-to-head with the other two top tandems in Cup, Johnson-Knaus and Hamlin-Darian Grubb.

So if the Blue Deuce duo can get out of there at or near the top of the standings, they will have arrived at the top.

***

You have to figure NASCAR is at least considering, somewhere in the background, going to a Chasers-only points system during the playoffs.

I'm bad at math, better at anecdotal evidence. Look at two of the three Chasers with multiple wins, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

At Talladega, Bowyer was in contention to win until he was knocked back to a 23rd-place finish in The Biggest One Ever, on the last lap. Eleven non-Chasers scored more points than Bowyer.

The Talladega win did Kenseth little good because of what had happened to him at Dover -- 23 non-Chasers scored more points than he did.

It's bad enough that the playoffs have to be run on the same tracks with non-Chasers -- not much choice there, unless you radically alter the race structure for, say, a pair of races each Sunday, one for the 12 Chasers and another for all the rest.

But non-Chasers' cluttering up of the points awards in each race is just unnecessary. They're competing for 13th on back anyway, so let them stay in the current structure and separate the Chasers out into a Chase-only system.

While they're at it, why not reward winning a lot more, so that it means something to guys like Bowyer and Kenseth? And even more to Keselowski, who also has two Chase wins.

What about a Chasers-only points format of 20 points for winning a race, dropping to 12 for second place, then 10-9-8-7 … etc.?

NASCAR's thoughts? "At this point, we're very pleased with the way the Chase is playing out in its current format," spokesman Kerry Tharp said via email. "That said, we're always looking at ways to improve our championship playoffs and will make adjustments as necessary …"

See? They're always thinking about stuff.

***

You wonder whether Kenseth, with his anything-but-lame-duck performance in recent weeks, winning two of three races, is preparing the best seat ever handed to a Cup rookie, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., for next year.

Or is this simply a singular show of ability by Kenseth that has been head and shoulders above the rest of the Roush Fenway team this year?

Considering how Kenseth has been praising the cars lately, and considering that Jimmy Fennig, a master mentor of young drivers, is likely to stay on as crew chief with Stenhouse next year, you have to figure Stenhouse is stepping into at least as good a ride, with at least as good a chance to win as a rookie, than anyone since Johnson in 2002, when he won three races.

***

A long-standing adage around the NASCAR garages, that you can sense when a driver is leading a charmed existence that is a foreshadowing of a championship, is emerging.

It began with Keselowski getting through the massive pileup at Talladega to finish seventh, while Hamlin wound up 14th, Johnson 17th and Bowyer 23rd. Then Sunday he dodged Kyle Busch's late wreck to finish eighth in a car that wasn't really top-10 worthy for most of the day.

Bottom line, Bad Brad is lucky AND good -- not to mention cool Sunday, in a so-so car, in a nerve-wracking race, until he could climb out afterward to vent and sigh relief. Thus far, at least, he has followed the old adage precisely.

***

You have to wonder when NASCAR, so intent on polishing its image, might start fining drivers for grammar-fracturing such as Jimmie Johnson's "It's pretty tore up" while looking at his damaged car after the race at Kansas on Sunday.

Have to figure Johnson learned a lot better grammar than that by sixth grade in El Cajon, Calif., and picked up the "tore up" from the garage-area culture, rooted in the Richard Petty era.

By the 1980s Petty himself felt the heat enough to tell me, "They don't want me out front [e.g. on network morning shows] 'cause I can't talk good English."

Thirty years later you still have the top driver, a Californian, saying his car was "pretty tore up." And this was by no means the first time for Johnson, who, I guess, just wants to be one of the guys.

Folksy-sounding, yes, and fine for Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy. And where I live, in north Georgia, you get, for example, word that your order can't be delivered because "the truck's tore up." (It wasn't torn up, it was broken down.)

But you have to figure NASCAR detractors surfing through sound bites find grounds to continue to snipe at NASCAR as an r-word sport. No wonder we have trolls singing the same old stereotypes in the chats and Conversations on ESPN.com.

You wonder if grammar-fracturing doesn't do more damage to NASCAR's image than cussing into live microphones, which does draw dollar fines and points penalties.

And don't claim favoritism toward Dale Earnhardt Jr. here. His notorious "Don't mean s---" at Talladega in 2004 would, under my suggestion, have cost him doubly, for vulgarism AND grammar.