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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Team owner Roger Penske radioed to Brad Keselowski that there was "a little work to do" before the start of Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.
Keselowski, starting a season-worst 32nd, responded, "I believe, man."
Maybe we all should.
As impressive as Jimmie Johnson's seventh Martinsville win was, Keselowski's career-best sixth-place finish there arguably was better.
The Penske Racing driver turned what could have been a disastrous day, a day that could have seriously damaged his championship hopes, into what almost felt like a win. He left this charming half-mile track in the foothills of Virginia with only a two-point deficit to the five-time champion, who came into the day trailing by seven.
"A team is a group of individuals that believes in each other, and that's what we have," Keselowski said after what ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch called the Miracle in Martinsville. "We have a strong group that believes in each other and makes things happen. That's what it is going to take."
If this wasn't a two-man battle for the title before Sunday, it is now. Denny Hamlin saw his hopes shattered with an electrical issue that turned a potential win into a 33rd-place finish that has him 49 points off the lead.
Clint Bowyer, 26 points out, and Kasey Kahne, 29 back, are long shots at best. The most any driver has come back from with three races to go -- recalculating the old points system into the new one -- is eight by Tony Stewart a year ago.
"I know this championship is going to come down to Homestead," Keselowski said. "You've just got to be in position to where you've got a shot at it."
Nobody has done that better than Johnson since the Chase format was implemented in 2004. He did what he had to do again on Sunday, leading the most laps and winning the race for a maximum points day.
But Johnson's win has to be tempered by the fact that he wasn't able to put more distance between him and Keselowski, who fought his way from the back to the front with pit and tire strategy.
It was Keselowski's call alone to stay out with about 25 laps remaining, and that gave him a chance -- as small as it was -- to actually win.
In case you missed it, Keselowski asked crew chief Paul Wolfe as they waited for pit road to open if he could make the call. He then suggested they come in for two tires.
But at the last second, Keselowski stayed out with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Johnson and the other leaders pitted. It moved him from seventh to the front with 22 laps remaining, and he held the lead until Johnson got around him on fresher tires with 15 to go.
It was as split-second, seat-of-the-pants as you'll see.
"Yeah, that was pretty much it," Keselowski said with a smile. "I guess it wasn't a great call. It wasn't a bad call."
It was the kind of call the No. 2 team has made all season to keep itself in championship contention.
"We have a lot of trust in each other," Wolfe said.
They believe, in much the same way Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus believe. But what made their day more impressive was everyone expected Johnson to contend for the win. He was starting first and is so strong at this paper-clip-shaped track that they might have to rename it Johnson Speedway someday.
Keselowski was slow off the truck, slow in qualifying and slow in practice. Sixth place had to seem almost like a victory, even though neither he nor Wolfe will admit it.
"It felt like an OK day," Wolfe said. "We minimized the damage."
|Denny Hamlin's crew tries to fix the electrical problems on the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin finished 33rd.|
Johnson did everything he could to maximize the damage. He led a race-high 193 laps en route to his fourth win of the season and 59th of his career. He sent the message that he is the driver to beat.
But Keselowski sent the message that he's not going away.
"It means you can't count this team out," Keselowski said as he stood next to his car on pit road, the right front fender bent from a lot of rubbing over the final laps. "This team has a tremendous amount of heart."
He just as easily could have been talking about Johnson's team. It rallied after its string of five straight titles ended a year ago to be stronger than ever.
It has improved in all facets, especially fuel mileage, which could be crucial in the final three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. Keselowski and Wolfe forced them to get better with the way they've kept themselves in races -- winning at Dover -- getting every ounce out of the tank.
But this race wasn't about fuel mileage. It was about Johnson having the best car and Keselowski giving himself a chance as he's done time and time again.
That's why, as Johnson reminded us several times in his postrace remarks, he didn't get excited by Keselowski's poor qualifying position.
"I saw a lot of amazing things from my competition," Johnson said of winning five titles in a row. "I'm certainly seeing that with Brad. It's a familiar [place] where you can't count him out.
"That's the reason I had that tone in my voice in qualifying. I knew they would be there. I have to expect that. We all do."
Johnson sees a "never quit, fight to the end" mentality in the No. 2 team that he's seen in championship battles with Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Hamlin and Mark Martin, that he saw in his own team on Sunday when the handling went away in the middle of the race.
"They have that tenacity to stay after it, and they're doing a great job," he said.
But Keselowski's team has something else. There is a connection between driver and crew chief, among everyone on that team, that makes you believe they won't get down on one another no matter what happens.
Last year, Stewart was so disenchanted with crew chief Darian Grubb that he told Grubb the crew chief wasn't coming back before going on his amazing stretch run. Two years ago, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford had moments of being at odds with each other.
Keselowski and Wolfe truly are a pair as close to Johnson and Knaus as there is in the garage in that they have complete faith in each other. When they qualified and practiced poorly, the simply worked harder to get better. It's the same tenacity we've seen out of the 48 team.
"I think it's going to be pretty even," Johnson said of the competition between him and Keselowski the next three weeks.
You have to. If you didn't believe that after Dover, when Keselowski won on a track where Johnson had dominated and he had been average, then you have to believe it after Sunday.
"It just feels like you live another day," Keselowski said. "It's like being in war and surviving a battle. It's not necessarily a win. You're just happy to still be living."
Keselowski is alive and well.