Saturday, October 27, 2012

Keselowski Faces Another Critical Test

Keso is on the hot seat
Brad Keselowski has spent much of the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with his back against the wall. Through it all, the Miller Lite Dodge driver has persevered, maintaining his grip on the top spot in the championship standings.

Sunday, that grip may slip.

With a lead of just seven points over five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski struggled mightily in qualifying for the TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and will roll off 32nd in Sunday’s race. Johnson, meanwhile, will lead the field to the green flag from the pole position.

Johnson has dominated in past events at the Martinsville oval, winning six times in 21 career starts there. He has recorded Top-5 finishes in two-thirds of those starts, and with a lifetime average finish of 5.8, the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver ranks as one of the best ever to turn a wheel at the Commonwealth oval.

Keselowski, meanwhile, has struggled. In five career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville, he has managed just two Top-10 finishes; a 10th-place showing in 2010 and a ninth earlier this season. With an average finish of 13.4, Martinsville is unlikely to rank anywhere near the top of Keselowski’s “favorite track’s” list.

A back-of-the-pack start is problematic at Martinsville, for two reasons. The track’s tight, paper-clip layout produces frequent incidents that can sweep-up drivers relegated to the rear of the field by a poor qualifying effort. Even if he is able to avoid trouble Sunday, Keselowski could fall into the clutches of the race leaders, who often begin lapping slower cars in the first 25 laps of the event.

In an effort to dodge those bullets, crew chief Paul Wolfe will almost certainly have to modify his pit strategy, foregoing an early pit stop to gain Keselowski valuable track position. If Sunday’s race features multiple cautions in the first 50-75 laps, Wolfe may be able to manipulate his driver to the front of the field. If not, Keselowski’s “Blue Deuce” could be in trouble.

The good news for Keselowski fans is that the Michigan native has overcome long odds before. Johnson was also a heavy favorite going into the Dover race on Sept. 30, but Keselowski and Wolfe played their cards masterfully on the Monster Mile, stretching superior fuel mileage into an upset victory on a track where they had never before finished better than 12th.

They’ll need a similar performance Sunday if Keselowski is to remain the leader of the band.

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