It's Chad 'n' Jimmie vs. Kesewolfeski
You almost wish this Chase could end Sunday at Texas, at what looks for now like the crescendo of the whole thing. Maybe it should go out now, as a finale, in a blaze of the six guns of the masterfully maddening promoter Eddie Gossage, on the craziest cookie-cutter track there is, with its dipsy-doodle transitions and its blinding entry speeds into the corners.
Then again, you think, no, hell no. Chad 'n' Jimmie just won't relent, and Kesewolfeski just won't falter. Not even at Texas. This, the best showdown of driver-crew chief tandems in recent memory, promises to rage on, even into the studio-racing local apathy of Homestead-Miami.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Autostock, Russell LaBountyBrad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, a former driver, represent the biggest threat to five-time champs Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
Last January, when I picked Brad Keselowski to win the Sprint Cup (and weathered much guffawing from colleagues and readers alike), I based it largely on one element: attitude.
His is the best I've ever seen in a driver. He is confident but not cocky, outgoing but not overbearing, clearly comfortable in all settings, with a free-and-easy manner that belies his focus.
Keselowski carries himself like a champion. He just doesn't have the hardware in his hands. Yet.
By demeanor, he has been leading the standings since before the season -- since he completely commanded the Penske Racing session in the media tour last winter.
So I left Charlotte in January certain he would make the Chase, and pretty sure he would win it. What I hadn't pieced together was exactly WHY he had the perfect attitude. He isn't arrogant, so there had to be substance behind it.
I didn't yet understand Paul Wolfe, the crew chief so in sync with Keselowski that I've come to call them Kesewolfeski. They have made it matter not a whit that they're all alone in the Chase, with the only Dodge, up against the Hendrick juggernaut with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus on the point.
The Chad 'n' Jimmie show is no surprise in its relentlessness. They've gone essentially recognized as the best tandem in Cup since, really, 2004, when they won eight races, including four in that inaugural Chase, but were nipped by eight points by Kurt Busch for the championship.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by Kesewolfeski's refusal to falter. They won the Nationwide championship together in 2010, and then in their first Cup season together they won three races and finished fifth in the 2011 Chase.
Wolfe is a sort of second coming of Ray Evernham, in that he is a former driver. There's no better background for communicating, for understanding your driver's every whim instantaneously -- including letting Keselowski make the call to stay out at Martinsville last Sunday, and then slug his way out of what looked like a mistake when so many cars behind them pitted.
My ESPN.com colleague Terry Blount pointed out this week that statistical history at the last three tracks in this Chase overwhelmingly favors Johnson, who has significantly higher average finishes at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead than Keselowski.
Still, take Texas, where Johnson on paper thumps Keselowski with an average finish of 9.7 in 18 races -- but that was all Chad 'n' Jimmie -- to 25.3 in eight races. But Keselowski and Wolfe together have run only three races at Texas, including an aberrant 36th-place finish, 22 laps down, in April. Previously, Keselowski had run Texas either in pickup rides or in his winless 2010 first season with Penske.
Martinsville last week was the most recent supposed doomsday for Kesewolfeski, with their previous average finish of 13.4 in five races to Chad 'n' Jimmie's average of 5.8 in 21.
But the Blue Deuce duo found a way there, and finished sixth, just two points behind in the Chase. Who can say they won't find a way at Texas?
Chad 'n' Jimmie have been unflappable but by no means have they been infallible at Texas. They've won only once there, back in 2007. And in '09 they managed to get themselves wrecked out early in the fall race, spent most of the afternoon patching together their car, and had to slug their way back to win the championship.
Mark Garrow says Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski can now focus on racing each other and Dale Earnhardt Jr. explains he suffered two different types of concussions.
Because neither tandem is likely to win at Texas, Sunday for them may well come down to position-by-position racing, one point per position.
Nobody is more seasoned at that sort of thing, down the stretch, than the 48 crew. But the 2 crew's seasoning is a wondrous work in rapid progress.
And maybe, just maybe, former driver Paul Wolfe understands a nuance Chad Knaus has never shown a knack for: letting his driver rip, on his own, making the call, on instinct. Where Knaus instinctively seeks command and control of a situation, Wolfe last Sunday let his driver have the say, and it worked.
It has worked, all the way back to Talladega in the spring, when Keselowski made a winning last-lap move he didn't even tell Wolfe he was going to make, because, as Keselowski said, "He didn't need to know."
After all, Keselowski said then, "I don't get paid to suck at this."
That's the attitude that, I'll say on Halloween just as surely as I said in January, will win this Cup. And bring change at the pinnacle of driver-crew chief tandems.
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