Commentary

Surprise winners eligible for $1M bonus

Updated: August 31, 2011, 8:45 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson can't win it. Neither can Carl Edwards or Jeff Gordon or Kevin Harvick.

No one from the power teams of Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing has a shot at it, either.

Some of the usual suspects are not in the running for the $3 million bonus Sunday night at Atlanta.

If you had picked four names to win over the past five races in the Sprint Summer Showdown, most fans would have swung and missed on three of them -- Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski.

And anyone who would have picked Keselowski to win twice in that span is either a close relative or one crazy gambler.

[+] EnlargeKeselowski
John Harrelson/Getty Images Brad Keselowski has won two of the five Sprint Summer Showdown races leading into Sunday's bonus finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch is the only one of the eligible four guys who isn't a surprise. Busch also is the only one of the four who has won at Atlanta, earning a victory in the spring race of 2008.

He's probably the favorite of the four to take the money, which will be split three ways if one of the eligible drivers wins Sunday -- $1 million to the driver, $1 million to his chosen charity and $1 million to a fan paired with that driver.

After his win at Bristol on Saturday night, Keselowski joked about being the only two-race winner in the qualified foursome.

"Does that mean I only have to finish second?" he asked. "I should get something for winning two of the [qualifying] races, like a handicap.

"We've got to do some better negotiating. Get Roger [Penske, his team owner] in here. Roger could get it to two [million for the driver]. I'm serious, he could. But that's great. We're going to have fun with it either way."

No deal, but he's not a bad bet at this point. Keselowski is on a roll with two victories and four consecutive top-3 finishes.

"It was always nice to run for some special things," Keselowski said. "Obviously, we would like to win a million dollars for charity. That would be pretty cool. And a million dollars for the fan -- that's even a better question: Is it $2 million now?"

No, but two fans winning $500,000 each isn't bad.

Keselowski won earlier this year at Kansas, which is a 1.5-mile oval like Atlanta, but not as similar as some people think. Atlanta is a high-banked oval with much higher speeds than Kansas.

Keselowski's best finish at Atlanta was 25th, but that's misleading. He was headed for a sixth-place finish in the spring race last year before Edwards intentionally wrecked him, causing Keselowski's car to go airborne into the fence.

Menard and Ambrose never have won on a so-called cookie-cutter track, but Menard finished fifth at Atlanta in the spring race last year. Ambrose's best Atlanta finish was 10th one year ago in five previous Cup starts on the track.

Menard and Ambrose have an additional reason to win: A victory probably would earn them a Chase spot.

Busch is on top of the standings and has nothing to lose. Keselowski is the only one of the four who might consider points racing if he has a chance to pass Tony Stewart for 10th in the standings. If Keselowski can move up one spot to 10th, he would start the Chase only three points behind Busch.

However, if he wins this race and moves up to 10th, he could start the Chase tied with Busch.

More than likely, all four of these teams will go for it and take some changes on pit strategy and fuel mileage to get the victory.

Extra incentive to win always is a good thing.

Kentucky traffic upgrades

Everyone involved with Kentucky Speedway is trying to make amends. Major steps are under way to alleviate the traffic horrors thousands of fans experienced at the inaugural Cup event in July.

Here is a list of changes for 2012 that were announced Tuesday:

• Some 143 acres of additional parking.

• Expanded exits off or Interstate 71 for easier access to the facility.

• Widening of state Route 35 where it leads into the speedway.

• Construction of a tunnel under Route 35 for pedestrian and shuttle traffic into the track.

• Hiring a professional parking management service to direct traffic during the race weekend.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. is investing $7.5 million in these changes and the state of Kentucky is spending $3.6 million on road-infrastructure improvements.

It's a shame it took a complete meltdown two months ago for these changes to come about, but officials are doing the right thing now.

These improvements will make a big difference and lead to a much more enjoyable experience for everyone who opts to give Kentucky Speedway a second chance.

Red-hot crew chief

If Keselowski is the hottest driver in NASCAR right now, Paul Wolfe is definitely on fire as his crew chief.

In his first year as the team leader for the No. 2 Dodge, it's like Wolfe winning coach of the year honors as a rookie at age 34. And he may win back-to-back championships after leading Keselowski to the Nationwide Series title last year.

Wolfe has helped Keselowski post two victories and four consecutive top-3 finishes, moving up 12 places in the standings in a month.

"We kind of have things going for us right now," Wolfe said after the victory at Bristol on Saturday night. "It's weird because it's not really doing anything different. It's been a lot of small things over the last couple of months just starting to add up."

So what's his secret? What makes Wolfe so good?

He's been in the driver's seat. That's part of it. Wolfe drove part-time in the Nationwide Series from 2003 through 2005.

It's many other things besides his driving experience, of course, but people are noticing what he's done this season. Wolfe humbly passes the credit elsewhere.

"We've got fast race cars," he said. "The driver is doing his part. The pit crew is doing its part and we're making good calls and adjustments on pit road.

"The biggest thing for me, being in the Cup series, is that these races are a lot longer than the Nationwide races. You have to be able to adjust on your car as the track changes, because as the race goes on, everyone gets better. I feel like as a team we've done a good job adjusting on our cars and making them have adjustability in them."

The real question comes in how Wolfe will hold up when he goes against the master -- Chad Knaus -- once the Chase starts.

Beating the system

Wolfe and Keselowski did one thing to perfection Saturday night at Bristol: They knew exactly when and where they could go over the pit road speed limit and get away with it.

I commend them for it. They used the rules (or lack of rules) to their advantage. But do you really want drivers winning races by zooming past cars on pit road because they outsmarted the timing-lines police?

NASCAR officials say they will add more timing lines at Bristol next year. In this age of technology, isn't there a better option than timing lines that only catch speeders at certain spots on the track?

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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