Through the Gears: The four things we learned in Charlotte
Brad Keselowski’s actions, both during and after the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, are what everyone’s talking about this week in NASCAR. After running 16th and watching his title hopes potentially go up in flames, Keselowski took his anger out on Denny Hamlin, playing bumper cars both on the track and on pit road while roughing up Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and even rookie Alex Bowman on the way. He then stayed attached to Hamlin during a wild trip through the garage while the two made contact before Keselowski reportedly knocked random parts in the air, putting random bystanders at risk with his out-of-control Ford before parking next to a plethora of people that, to be brutally honest, were waiting in line to kick his ass.
Kenseth, typically one of the most mild-mannered people you’ll ever meet, was the one who got the best shot. He and Keselowski made contact on a late restart that shot Kenseth’s No. 20 car into the wall and left him on the Chase bubble instead of solidly within the top 5. In retaliation, Keselowski claims his No. 2 Ford was hit multiple times under caution later — moves which ruined the front end of his car and any hope at a top-5 finish (one that Kenseth had already lost).
“Brad basically took a right and shoved him into the fence,” said race winner Kevin Harvick, who witnessed the initial contact between the two. “Every moment matters in this Chase, and Matt Kenseth knew that one particular moment could have been the end.”
But what appears to have driven this whole brawl, reminiscent of the old school NASCAR “Boys have at it” mentality fans supposedly hope for, is the way Keselowski’s Chase has unraveled. A tough break at Kansas last Sunday when he hit the wall after a blown tire, left him 22 points outside the top eight heading to Charlotte. Recovering from that deficit without a win Saturday night or at Talladega this weekend find his hopes of advancement somewhere between “difficult” and “impossible.” Even if Keselowski had finished fifth at Charlotte, where he should have before a green-white-checker mess shuffled everything, he’d be sitting eight points behind the cutoff and failing to control his own destiny sans a win. He now heads to a track at Talladega where you’re basically playing the lottery for roughly three hours.
That’s impossible to grasp for a guy who all season has seemed on cruise control with a good look at a second championship. Roger Penske’s two cars — winners of three of the first five Chase races — top the series with five victories apiece and have led over 2,400 laps combined. Keselowski, two years removed from a 2012 title, had his underdog mentality in full force, determined to prove he’s not a “one-hit wonder” and a driver who could win multiple championships … and maybe even challenge some magical title numbers someday.
Instead, one bad break in this Chase left him at the mercy of the Talladega gods, his season now teetering on the brink. In the meantime, his Joe Gibbs Racing rivals, who combine for only two victories this season, have a strong chance to grab that trophy instead. That three-car organization, who combine for fewer laps led then Keselowski’s 1,506, could all advance into the final eight, stealing a title from under the Penske driver’s nose. It’s like a wild card team in the NFL playoff race defeating the top seed, a juggernaut with a 15-1 record going down to a 9-7, we-snuck-in-because-of-some-tiebreaker opponent.
It’s a type of frustration stick-and-ball players are used to; it’s part of the game in a cruel playoff world where mediocrity can still be rewarded. NASCAR, even with 10 years of the Chase format, has competitors jarred by that ending. Up until this season, its champions still needed to perform over a 10-race stretch, roughly 30 percent of the 36-race schedule. Now? It’s little three-race snippets, equivalent to an NFL playoff game in which one bad day ruins a year worth of quality performances.
“It makes me want to puke every week,” Harvick said of this new format, including a winner-take-all, “final four” showdown at Homestead. “It's been totally different. It's not about worrying about how many points you have or who's where or who's doing what. It's, ‘all right, how are we going to try to figure out how to win this race so we don't have to throw up all week and go to Talladega.’”
Keselowski? He’s going to spend all week in a panic attack, then potentially all offseason wondering about the one that got away. It doesn’t excuse his actions at Charlotte, but it certainly provides an explanation behind what some might call crazy-making behavior.
Through the Gears we go …
FIRST GEAR: What happens now?
Whether Keselowski will be fined or even suspended for his actions is unclear. NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton, acting as the mouthpiece for the organization, indicated they’d “collect all the facts” and have announcements Tuesday on potential consequences. Hamlin, who sparked one of the many on-track incidents, felt strongly something has to be done.
“(Keselowski)’s just out of control,” he said. “NASCAR said ‘no tolerance’ for stuff like that.”
Um, sort of. NASCAR also said “Boys, have at it,” which makes what happens from here a little confusing. “They love it,” claimed Harvick, speaking of the sanctioning body. “They were fighting afterwards, that's what it's all about.”
Past history muddies the waters even further. Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears were fined for their parts in a spring incident at Richmond where the latter got punched in the face after the race. No points were lost as a result of the fracas, and Charlotte’s brawl never got quite as heated — all drivers were separated before any serious damage was done. All three drivers here are involved in the title race; taking points away, even instituting a suspension would have serious consequences, setting a precedent NASCAR would be held to the fire for.
That’s why I expect punishment to be minimal. The focus will most likely will be on the way Keselowski hit Kenseth as both cars pulled onto pit road. TV cameras backed up Kenseth’s post-race claim that the driver was sitting vulnerable with all belts off, window down and HANS device fully unhitched. A hit in the wrong place, even going 50 miles an hour, could easily have jarred Kenseth and caused an injury. That contact, more than the on-track fracas, was the reason the 2003 champion was so upset.
A similar incident, involving Kurt Busch at Darlington two years ago, led to a $50,000 fine for the driver (but no loss of series points). I think that hit on his wallet will be sufficient for a brawl that, for good reasons or bad, has a lot of eyes focused on NASCAR this week.
SECOND GEAR: Oh, by the way … there was a winner
Harvick, who’s led a series high 1,815 laps this season, finally cashed in on victory lane, winning for the first time since Darlington in April while surviving a green-white-checker finish. During the final caution, several drivers behind Harvick got fresh tires but there wasn’t enough time to make up the difference, validating crew chief Rodney Childers’ call to stay out.
“In the past here you would have never stayed out there at the end, and you would have got your doors blown off,” said the head wrench. “It was interesting how it played out.”
It was also time for some good luck to finally find its way into the No. 4 camp. This team has found every which way to lose a race, from poor pit stops, to speeding penalties, to terrible restarts by the driver. At some point a new team with 10 months to mature was finally going to start learning how not to beat itself.
“(Harvick) is the leader,” said Childers. “And there's one thing that I get almost every Sunday night or Saturday night, and it's a text message that says, ‘the problems that we have are a lot better than the problems we don't have.’ As soon as I get that message or as soon as he says that, it flips a switch, I move to the next week, all the guys move to the next week and we go try to build the fastest car we can and move on.”
I wouldn’t say the No. 4 team is at complete peace and harmony; after all, their pit crew is now Tony Stewart’s, a move made prior to this Chase after a long line of sorry stops. But the group that remains has become more cohesive, and with Harvick entering the round of eight he’s more of a threat than ever to take home a first title.
THIRD GEAR: One mistake is all you get
Keselowski’s anger was the most visible, but the trio of drivers who left Kansas in a deep Chase hole remained there after a difficult Charlotte. Jimmie Johnson, who took control of this track in May, was largely a non-factor up front, never leading a lap after qualifying a mediocre 21st. Crew chief Chad Knaus and his driver had one colorful radio conversation, straining what has been a largely harmonious marriage. Despite all that, they were in position to run third or fourth until the pit stop prior to the green-white-checker for two tires that dropped them a total of 13 spots at the end. That 17th-place effort, leaving Johnson 26 points behind the top eight, makes Talladega a “win-or-go-home” stop if there’s any shot of earning their seventh Cup title this season.
You can’t blame Knaus for making that choice; he was trying to win, as this format does not allow for a single mulligan. A fourth-place finish for Johnson at Charlotte would still leave him 13 points outside the eighth-place cutoff, behind teammate Kasey Kahne and a nearly-insurmountable 29 behind seventh-place Hamlin. Points didn’t matter in this scenario. A win did, and this duo was expected to perform on what’s been one of their best career racetracks. The fact they fell short verifies that, yes, Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t sandbagging in late summer — it truly did fall behind Penske Racing and others with the new rules package.
As for Dale Earnhardt Jr., he seems to be done in by just plain ol’ bad luck. A broken shifter ruined a top-5 performance, leaving the No. 88 mid-pack and mishandling the rest of the evening. Finishing 20th, a lap off the pace, Earnhardt must now win Talladega, a track where he hasn’t visited victory lane inside a Cup car since 2004.
“I know what we need to do,” he said. “We will just have to build a fast car and hope that we don’t have any gremlins and try to go out there and win it.”
FOURTH GEAR: The tortoise wins the race?
One guy to keep an eye on as we enter the final eight after Talladega is Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman. No doubt, Newman’s No. 31 team has had an impressive Chase, leading a few laps at Kansas and then recovering from a spin — done to avoid Danica Patrick’s wreck at Charlotte — to finish seventh. While several Chasers drowned in the final 15 laps, making the wrong choices under the GWC finish, Newman wound up gaining seven spots.
That leaves him a virtual lock at fourth in points and 21 above ninth to move on unless there’s a major ‘Dega catastrophe. The problem? Newman is perhaps the weakest Chase candidate, with two top-5 finishes in 31 races. He has led only 31 laps and hasn’t single pole to his credit. Yet NASCAR, with its new format, has propelled Newman deep into the playoffs and in position to potentially be crowned series champion after Homestead.
What would it say about the sport should that happen? It’s more of a possibility than you think, with Newman and RCR playing it smart and mastering this new format by focusing on a 10th-place finish every week. It’s working.
Danica Patrick was furious with Joey Logano after contact sent her No. 10 Chevy into the wall. It was the only major wreck at Charlotte, and ruined a top-15 finish for Patrick who has been running much better as of late. She’ll likely have the speed to keep up with Logano, a title contender, at Martinsville in two weeks. Will there be retaliation? … Chip Ganassi Racing continues to impress, with both Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson ending their Charlotte race inside the top six. Larson’s average finish of 3.8 during the playoff races has only been bested by Logano (2.8). … The Trevor Bayne era at Roush Fenway Racing is off to an auspicious start. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner and de facto replacement for the departing Carl Edwards, failed to qualify for Saturday night’s race. His Ford was out-qualified by the likes of rookies Michael Annett and Cole Whitt, both of whom have about 10 percent of the funding. … Jeff Gordon, second at Charlotte, quietly remains the lone Hendrick driver in good position to advance in the Chase. Without the postseason reset he would lead the points by a comfortable 52 over Logano.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: www.http://twitter.com/NASCARBowles