Qualifying has never been so important in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — just ask the six drivers with the best qualifying average on the circuit. Each has scored multiple wins in 2014.
Brad Keselowski is amongst that group. In fact, he leads it. Keselowski’s five wins are a series best, as is his 7.2-place average starting position.
That’s what made Sunday’s Chase kickoff race at Chicagoland Speedway unusual.
Keselowski posted the 25th fastest speed in Friday’s first practice session at the 1.5-mile track, and when qualifying was rained out, the field was set using the session’s times. On an aero-dependent track like Chicagoland, fighting dirty air in the middle of the pack is strike one for those with a realistic shot at the win.
With strategy on pit road coming into play virtually every week — two tires, four tires, splash ’n’ go — teams want an optimal pit box. The quickest in qualifying get the best choice of pit box. Twenty-fifth on the grid is a long way from optimal. Strike two for Keselowski.
There’d be no strike three, though.
Oh, Keselowski and crew fouled a couple off — namely, a missed lug nut on pit road under yellow that necessitated an additional stop. That dropped the No. 2 Ford from second to 16th with 86 laps remaining. But that’s where pure speed came into play.
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion drove back to the top 5 over the ensuing laps and by the time a caution waved on lap 244 of 267, he was sitting fourth. Then, it was a matter of taking advantage of the situation presented.
As Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson battled side-by-side for the lead on a late restart, Keselowski calmly stalked, then struck, splitting the pair in a daring thread-the-needle pass with 15 laps to go.
And oh, what a pass it was. Misjudge and three cars are trashed; hit that sweet spot and it’s an automatic pass into the next round — the “Contender” round — of NASCAR’s elimination-style playoff.
“I just saw a hole and I went for it,” Keselowski explained. “The 4 (Harvick) and the 42 (Larson) were racing really hard, doing all the things they needed to do. It just opened a hole.
“I didn’t know if my car would stick or not, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it. I tried it, it did. That got us into the lead.”
And just like that, Keselowski is the hottest thing on tour. Winner of consecutive events, he knocked Jeff Gordon off the point standings throne the four-time champ had occupied since early April after a Richmond win in which Keselowski decimated the field.
Dodging and weaving his way to victory at Chicagoland was a statement of sorts for the No 2 bunch. It was no rout, demanding driver and team to overcome adversity. Of course, for a strategic, thinking-man like Keselowski, it’s always “onward.”
“Nobody cares that we won Chicago, nobody cares that we won Richmond or the other three races,” Keselowski said. “It keeps resetting. You have to reset yourself. You have to keep developing the car and pushing as a team, whether it’s on pit road, the car handling, spec, whatever it might be, or driver tactics.
“It’s a statement for this week. After we get done with Dover, everything resets.”
In the meantime, multiple-race winners and chief competitors Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick kept pace, each finishing in the top 5 at Chicagoland. And they weren’t alone: twelve of the top-15 finishers were Chase drivers.
However, survival is the name of the game in this Chase, as the bottom four in the standings will be eliminated after the three-race first round. Currently, that includes Ryan Newman, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola — though a lot can change in the coming pair of races.
Then the Chase “resets,” and Keselowski — or Gordon, or Logano, or whoever catches fire — can make statements all over again.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.