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Against odds, Keselowski hanging with Johnson in Chase battle

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit with Brad Keselowski's title fight with Jimmie Johnson, a crew chief shuffle, Michael Waltrip Racing's performance and Kyle Busch's hot streak.</p>

Brad Keselowski is not supposed to be challenging for a NASCAR Sprint Cup title. At least this year’s title. Many expect him to be a championship contender for years to come but the prevailing thought entering the Chase was that this wouldn’t be his year.

The reasons varied:

• Dodge, the team’s manufacturer, is leaving NASCAR after this season.

• Keselowski hadn’t truly been in a race for the Sprint Cup title to the final race.

• Others viewed Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as having a better shot.

Yet, with three races to go, Keselowski trails Johnson by two points. No other driver is within 25 points of Johnson. Unless something unexpected happens, the championship race is between Johnson and Keselowski.

So, how has Keselowski gotten to this point?

Crew chief Paul Wolfe says that the team has “put blinders on all of that and not really focused on the things around us.

“I think we’ve shown growth in this team. We’ve shown improvement from the beginning of the season. I think we were lacking speed earlier the season. We were able to run well and get good finishes and win some races, but we didn’t have dominant race cars. We continued to work on our stuff and as we got closer to the Chase and, as we’ve been in the Chase, there have been tracks where I feel we’ve been dominant or as good as anybody here and that’s the improvement part I see of having the speed in the car.”

The team also has shown little impact in Dodge’s announcement that it won’t return to the sport next year and that Penske Racing will switch to Ford. Keselowski has been fast and also benefited from Wolfe’s pit strategy to win two Chase races (Chicagoland and Dover).

Another key is how the team benefited from last year’s Chase even though its title hopes ended before the season finale. The No. 2 bunch was third in the point standings with four races to go in 2011, heading to Martinsville. Keselowski was sixth in that race when he was collected in a chain-reaction incident in the final laps. NASCAR didn’t throw a caution and it cost him about 10 positions, dropping him further behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and all but ending his title hopes. Although Keselowski didn’t challenge to the end, Jeff Gordon recently said he thought that was a valuable experience that has helped that team for this season.

Such experience has helped even when things have not gone as planned in the Chase.

Keselowski stayed out an extra lap at Charlotte but ran out of fuel in a race he was dominant but finished 11th. They struggled at Kansas but still managed an eighth-place finish. Qualifying has been an issue, as Keselowski has not started in the top 20 in the last four races. Each time the team didn’t panic.

It’s why Keselowski is so close to winning the Sprint Cup championship.

“It shows the potential we have together and that we’re still growing together,” Keselowski said after finishing sixth at Martinsville last weekend. “I believe that we can do this, I really do. We’ve got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we’re doing all the right things. If you do that long enough, good things will happen to you and good things are happening to us.”


HITTING THEIR STRIDE  Jimmie Johnson said his title run began months ago.

“I feel kind of mid-to-late summer we started hitting on all eight cylinders,” he says. “I guess the Indy weekend (in late July) would be a good landmark weekend for us.”

Since Indy, where he won, Johnson has scored nine top-10 finishes in 14 races. He’s led in all but two of those events.

“We were around it, hitting on things, but starting at Indy, everything started clicking really, really well for us,” Johnson says. “I feel as focused and prepared as I’ve ever been in my career. We have some very smart guys with experience. Everybody is managing their emotions well, working very hard on their individual positions and executing.”


BEST OF THE REST  Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish at Martinsville continued his strong run. Although he didn’t make the Chase, he’s had five top-10 finishes, including four top 5s, in the last seven races.

The 232 points he’s scored in the Chase is more than what seven title contenders have tallied in the same period. He’s outscored Denny Hamlin (230 points), Martin Truex Jr. (228), Matt Kenseth (223), Greg Biffle (216), Tony Stewart (211), Kevin Harvick (203) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (148), who missed two races because of a concussion suffered at Talladega.

Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points in the Chase at 282 with Brad Keselowski next at 280.

Non-Chase drivers who have scored the most points in the Chase are Busch (232 points), Joey Logano (207), Ryan Newman (202) and Carl Edwards and Paul Menard (190 each).


AT THE TOP  Michael Waltrip Racing has placed one of its drivers in the top 5 in eight of the last 10 races.

All four MWR drivers have scored at least one top-5 finish during that stretch. Clint Bowyer has four top 5s, Martin Truex Jr. has two, Mark Martin has two and Brian Vickers has one.

Only Hendrick Motorsports can top MWR’s streak of races with at least one driver in the top 5. Hendrick has had a top-5 finisher in 15 consecutive races.


CREW CHIEF SHUFFLE  Richard Petty Motorsports announced Tuesday that it has hired Drew Blickensderfer to be the crew chief for Marcos Ambrose, replacing Mike Ford.

Blickensderfer moved over from Richard Childress Racing where he had been Jeff Burton’s crew chief this season. Shane Wilson will replace Blickensderfer for the season’s final three races. Luke Lambert, who is serving as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief for RCR in the Nationwide Series, will be Burton’s crew chief next season.
 

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