Brad Keselowski was smiling but you could sense the resolve in the 28-year-old after he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race.
“I think we’re a really young team that’s growing and getting better every week, every day and every hour,” Keselowski said moments after climbing from this car. “We got beat by a five-time champ. I think we’re doing pretty good, but I want that one more spot.”
Considering where Keselowski was a year ago, he and his team have made tremendous gains.
A year ago, Keselowski was 24th in the NASCAR championship point standings heading into the Coca-Cola 600 with zero wins, one top-five and one top-10 finish — and that came in the Southern 500 when he didn’t pit late, using the same strategy as race winner Regan Smith, and finished third.
This season, Keselowski is 12th in points with two victories, three top-five and five top-10 finishes.
Go back to last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and only one driver has more wins than Keselowski in that time. Tony Stewart has seven victories to Keselowski’s five. Just as impressive is that Keselowski and his team have won two races since the abrupt departure of Kurt Busch after last season. The team brought in AJ Allmendinger to replace him, making Keselowski the de facto No. 1 driver at Penske Racing. He has accepted and handled those responsibilities well.
Certainly, the team’s performance could have been better this season had both Keselowski and Allmendinger not been saddled with problems with the fuel pickup system. Both teams seemed to have solved those issues and the All-Star Race showed how strong both can be with Allmendinger going from last to second in the preliminary race to make the All-Star event and Keselowski winning the third segment before finishing second in the final 10-lap shootout.
Both teams seem to be headed in the right direction as summer approaches with Keselowski virtually locked into the Chase courtesy of his wins at Bristol and Talladega. Both Keselowski and Allmendinger will be worth watching the coming months.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
ON A ROLL Kasey Kahne heads into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 having scored five consecutive top-10 finishes — six if you count the All-Star Race. It’s quite a turnaround after he opened the season by finishing 29th or worse in four of the first six races and was as low as 32nd in the points at one time.
Kahne is 16th in the points this week. He’s gained spots in each of the last five points races.
What’s impressive is his top-10 streak has come at a variety of tracks from 1.5-mile speedways (Texas, Kanas) to a short track (Richmond), a restrictor-plate track (Talladega) and a driver’s track (Darlington).
This is the Kahne many expected to see at the start of the season — his first with Hendrick Motorsports — and one who has shed his bad luck early this season. The question will be if he can continue the run and climb into the top 10 in points.
HALL OF FAME More than 50 voters, including myself, will gather Wednesday to determine the next five-member class to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The class will be announced at 6:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday.
There are 25 nominees. Among those who received votes but didn’t make it last year (but are again on the ballot) are former modified champion Jerry Cook, driver/car owner Cotton Owens, car owner Raymond Parks and two-time champion driver Herb Thomas.
The five new nominees are: Ray Fox (engine builder/car owner), Anne B. France (administrator/wife of Bill France Sr.), Wendell Scott (first African-American driver to compete full-time in NASCAR’s top series), Ralph Seagraves (R.J. Reynolds official), and Rusty Wallace (1989 series champion).
There have been three previous classes inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson were in the inaugural class. David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett and Bud Moore were in the second class. Last year’s class had Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Dale Inman, Richie Evans and Glen Wood.
PIT STOPS Joey Coulter will make his Nationwide Series debut this weekend at Charlotte for Richard Childress Racing. He’ll be in the No. 21 car. ... All-Star Race winner Jimmie Johnson is looking to win that race and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year a second time. He performed the feat in 2003. The only other drivers to win both events in the last decade are Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
Prior to Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on May 12, it seemed Hendrick Motorsports would never get that elusive 200th Cup win. Its 16-race slide in between wins was relative in NASCAR terms, but for an organization lugging around tractor trailer loads of “200 Wins” caps and assorted other merchandise, it was time to hit the milestone and move on.
It turns out, moving on is just what Hendrick Motorsports has done.
Johnson once again led the HMS charge on Saturday, becoming only the third driver to have earned three All-Star Race victories with a dazzling performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The No. 48 team’s strategy, flawless execution and pure speed harkened back to a time when it was all but unbeatable at the track then known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Over a scintillating four-year period from 2003-06, the group led by crew chief Chad Knaus won five points-paying races, finished second twice and third once. It also recorded two All-Star wins (2003, ’06), to boot.
In Saturday’s exhibition race, Johnson and Knaus were not only the fastest, but the smartest, in a 23-car field. Having won Friday’s Pit Crew Challenge, the 48 team was awarded the final stall on pit road — the preferred choice. They easily won the first of the five-segment event, then dropped to the rear of the field for the proceeding three 20-lap runs, guaranteed of the first-place spot when the field stopped for a mandatory visit prior to a final 10-lap dash.
Johnson’s stop-and-go pit appearance allowed him to retain the lead, and from there it was only a matter of mashing the gas on the restart — which he did when second-place Matt Kenseth spun his tires. From there, he cruised to a .841-second victory.
“If you won the first segment, it was very easy what you could do,” Johnson said of the strategy. “There was just as much importance — not as much, but very close — amount of importance to win the second (segment). We felt like the winner would come out of the front row (on the 10-lap shootout), unless these guys got crazy and crashed or something.
“To make your odds work in your favor, being on that front row is key. First or second segment was the goal to win.”
Knaus echoed the thought.
“The biggest thing you have to do in any event is you have to limit your risk,” the crew chief noted. “That’s what we needed to do. We were fortunate that (Jimmie) was able to get out there that first segment and attack and get the win. From that point on, all you want to do is maintain and make sure you’re there at the end.”
Another Hendrick team, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., also enjoyed a successful night. Earnhardt won the Sprint Showdown, a transfer race for those not already qualified for the All-Star Race. He then won the fourth 20-lap segment before settling for fifth in the feature.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend,” Earnhardt said of the Coca-Cola 600, also held in Charlotte. “We are probably going to bring the same car. We have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying, that I hope will work out. I am real pleased with our effort.”
Hendrick will look for his 10th win in that race, a contest of endurance that is considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
“I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key,” Johnson said. “Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy — if it’s fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be — that’s going to be key.”
If Saturday’s race proved anything, it was that strategy was key. If that indeed is what it comes down to once again, figure Johnson, Knaus and the 48 team as the overwhelming favorite.