A while back I made mention of the fact that while Hendrick Motorsports remains the most dominant team in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, it had a challenger – Team Penske.
That’s truer now than it was just a couple of weeks ago.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski strengthened his team’s cause with his dominating victory in the Camping World RV Sales 301. It was his third of the season.
And the night before he won the Nationwide Series race which means he swept the races at New Hampshire.
He moved into third place in the point standings, behind the Hendrick duo of leader Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski is 38 points out of first place.
But, really, for now points don’t matter. Keselowski’s third win assures him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Penske teammate Joey Logano pretty much has it made, too. While a crash forced him out of the race in New Hampshire and into 40th place, the two victories he has on the season are going to be more than enough to put him in the Chase.
Which means that both drivers for Penske will have a shot at the championship.
It can’t be said, yet, that all of Hendrick’s drivers will be in the 10-race “playoff.”
Oh, it’s certain that three of the four will make it. Jimmie Johnson, who finished 42nd at New Hampshire after a blown left tire led to a wreck, has three victories this season and is a shoo-in.
Earnhardt Jr. has two and Jeff Gordon one.
The only Hendrick man without a victory is Kasey Kahne. He is 17th in points and, most likely, if he doesn’t win over the next seven races – a tall order – he will be out of the Chase.
To be more specific here, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. are guaranteed Chase positions because they have multiple wins and are locked into the top 30 in points. It’s very likely others will get their guarantees very soon.
In fact, here’s how the Chas scenario looks, in order based on victories and point standings, after 19 of 26 races.
Keselowski, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bower, Paul Menard and Kyle Lawson. Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Menard and Larson have no wins but are good enough in points – for now – to be included.
Keselowski’s New Hampshire win, in which he led 138 of 301 laps, marked the fourth straight victory for Ford this season.
It started with Edwards at Sonoma, followed by Keselowski’s victory at Kentucky, Almirola’s at Daytona and Keselowski again.
The last time Ford won four races in a row was in 2001, with Dale Jarrett, who earned three wins at Darlington, Texas and Martinsville, and Elliott Sadler, the winner at Bristol.
“Ford wants us to win, and they want to give us what we need to win,” said team owner Roger Penske. “I’d have to say that you couldn’t ask for a better weekend.
“I’ve already gotten many emails from the top people at Ford. They’re watching it every day. Their dealers are watching it and to me that makes the difference.
“At the end of the day you can’t have a great car if you don’t have the best driver, and I can tell you that at New Hampshire there was nobody that could beat Brad.”
Keselowski was the 2012 champion but had a disappointing 2013 season in which he won only one race, finished 14th in points and failed to make it into the postseason.
Before that, Tony Stewart, the 2005 champion, was the last to miss the Chase the next year.
Well, for Keselowski, being out of the Chase isn’t going to happen this season – obviously.
“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than in 2012,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before.
“We had tremendous speed at New Hampshire and I think there’s potential left, like I said, with different things. So that’s all very encouraging to me. I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now.
“I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver and I think we’re combining all those things.
“We’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”
Indeed, there could be more to come for Keselowski and Penske. But it is the same for Hendrick.
The only thing we’re pretty certain of, at the moment, is that the two teams will have five drivers in the Chase.