At the very least, Brad Keselowski had to leave Kentucky with the contented feeling that in 2012, he has it made.
That’s because the Penske Racing driver now knows that, barring a competitive collapse of major proportions, he is going to make the Chase – and have a chance to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
The 28-year-old Keselowski won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky to earn his seventh career victory in his 106th start.
More important it was his third win of the season, more than any other driver, and it virtually assured him a position in the Chase as a “wildcard” driver – at the very least.
Keselowski, at No. 10, is among the top 10 in points who will be admitted into the Chase. But his three wins serve as a bedrock insurance policy.
Under the Chase’s format the two “wildcard” entries will come from those drivers with the most wins and who are ranked in the top 20.
It’s obvious Keselowski’s position is all but unassailable. Yes, he can miss the Chase but that would take a massive implosion over the course of just nine races.
Based upon the season he’s had so far, it’s more likely Keselowski will rise in the point standings.
“Who is leading right now with the most points doesn’t mean a thing,” said Keselowski, who has seven top-10 finishes this season. “The only thing that means anything is where you are going to restart when the Chase begins. That’s going to be based on who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins. That’s all that matters.”
Keselowski built a big lead during the final long green-flag run and retained enough fuel to win the race at Kentucky, only the second Sprint Cup event at the 1.5-mile track.
He finished well ahead of Kasey Kahne, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who earned his eighth top-10 finish of the year and his first at Kentucky.
Denny Hamlin was third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth, Jeff Gordon fifth and Jimmie Johnson was sixth, which meant all four Hendrick competitors finished among the top six.
Keselowski was forced to go to a backup car after he wrecked his Dodge in a crash with Juan Pablo Montoya during practice – an incident that still irked Keselowski after his victory.
“My guys put together a backup car in 100-degree heat in less than an hour,” Keselowski said. “Not even an hour. It was 40 minutes.
“That’s what badasses do and that is what got us to victory lane.
“During practice, well, I don’t like being pushed around and that’s what I felt happened on the track. I hate it. Can’t stand it and won’t stand for it.”
Keselowski took the lead for the last time following a restart on lap 212. The race’s fourth caution period began on lap 210 after Ryan Newman and Joey Logano were involved in a crash in the second turn.
Keselowski led the final 56 laps. He was the race leader three times for 68 laps, second to Kyle Busch, winner of the inaugural Kentucky race a year ago who led five times for 118 laps. But Busch finished 10th due to a broken shock.
After his victory at Michigan, which ended a 143-race losing streak, Earnhardt Jr. was viewed as a championship contender.
His run at Kentucky was his 13th among the top 10, which ties him with teammate Johnson for the most this season.
It also moved Earnhardt Jr. into second place in the point standings, only 11 points behind Matt Kenseth, the lame duck driver at Roush Fenway Racing who finished seventh at Kentucky.
Earnhardt’s Chase position seems safe and, in fact, has improved largely because he has avoided the “summer swoon” which has plagued him in the past – and resulted in a tumble in the standings.
For example, in races 13-17 last year Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of second, sixth, 21st, 41st and 19th, respectively.
Over the same races this year, his results have obviously been better. In races 13-17, he has been fourth, eighth, first, 23rd and fourth, respectively.
All of the drivers currently ranked among the top 10 in points seem to have a good grip on Chase entry. However, two of them, sixth-ranked Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., in eighth place, do not have at least one insurance victory.
The present “wildcard” contenders include first candidate Busch, who is 12th in points, 42 out of 10th place, with one victory.
Kahne, 14th in points is next in line, followed by Newman, 15th in points and Logano, 16th in points. All have one victory and 463 points each – 74 out of the top 10.
Carl Edwards, who tied Tony Stewart in points following the Chase last year, but lost the tiebreaker, five wins to one, is presently 11th in points but ranks as No. 5 in the “wildcard” selection because he does not have a win this season.
Edwards was running among the top five at Kentucky when he was forced to pit for fuel with five laps to go and fell to 20th, one lap down.
It was a very disappointing finish for Edwards, who must, over the course of nine races, move into the top 10 or win at least two races to assure himself a spot in the Chase.
“We hoped there would be a caution at the end, but there wasn’t,” said Edwards, who said he would’ve pitted on the previous set of stops but feared he would miss the commitment line. “It is time for us to get it in gear. I am real frustrated, Bob (Osborne, crew chief) is real frustrated and I know we can do this.
“We ran as well as any Ford out here tonight. At the end, I think with some fuel we would have had a chance to win it.
“We need to get this in gear. We need to go.”