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Keselowski, Earnhardt surge, but NASCAR's season long and unpredictable


Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 1-2 Sunday in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But those results are part of a larger, 1-2 knockout punch they’ve been aiming at the rest of their Sprint Cup competition. Earnhardt hasn’t run worse than second in three starts this season, while Keselowski is just a step behind (third, third, first). They’re the only drivers to start this season with three top-5 finishes.

That must mean they’re automatics to make Sprint Cup’s Chase Final Four, right? Earnhardt, in his final year with crew chief Steve Letarte, has never looked more focused behind the wheel of the No. 88. Keselowski, fresh off missing the Chase, has enjoyed a second honeymoon with crew chief Paul Wolfe. Pit calls, which put the No. 2 car towards the front in Vegas, proved the hallmark of their championship season together (2012).

Both teams, on and off the track, act like they’ve got something to prove. Just don’t jump on the bandwagon and crown them before the ceremony, OK? Keselowski himself knows better; this time last year, he also had three straight top-5 results. Two months later, he was staring crew suspensions, an ugly rules violation and ill-handling race cars right in the face.

“Somebody asked me here before the race, last year we started off with (three top 5s),” he said. “But then, in the middle of the year we had every bad racing break.”

As for Earnhardt, while the future looks bright, the No. 88 has never been a serious title contender. It’s a step the team is learning on the fly, one mere dreams and popularity won’t always guarantee. And with Letarte’s impending departure, a high-profile search for his replacement will take center stage at some point, serving as a potential distraction.

In NASCAR, more than any other professional sport, fortunes change quickly. Just five years ago, Matt Kenseth started the year by winning the season’s first two races. Armed with a new crew chief, his No. 17 team appeared a lock to run circles around the competition. Instead? That year was the only Chase the 2003 Cup champ has missed.

Thirty six races make for a long year; a lot can still happen, especially with a new “knockout,” unpredictable format. Both Keselowski and Earnhardt benefit from the changes, locking up a playoff spot with wins inside the first month. But anything more come postseason time is far from a guarantee.

Here’s what else you can take from the Las Vegas weekend as we go “Through the Gears” …

FIRST GEAR: Penske shows two teams can still make it work  
While most NASCAR teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing push towards “coopetition” by accounting for 20 percent of the 43-car grid, owner Roger Penske has a different approach. Downsizing from three cars to two prior to the 2011 season, he’s shown you can still compete with the big boys with a smaller, focused approach and half the pooled funding of those around him.

What’s the secret? Perhaps it’s Keselowski himself, whose intensity for being on top of his game drives everyone around him.

“He overthinks everything,” Earnhardt said after coming up just short to the No. 2 car Sunday. “He comes up with 20 ideas; 18 of them are crazy, but two of them are great.”

It was Keselowski who pushed to minimize changes behind the scenes last season when his team appeared to be falling apart. Wolfe and company were consistently supported, allowing them to work through the kinks and come back with strategy designed to get the team up front. This duo never gives up, just like their counterparts at the No. 22 (Vegas polesitter Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon). While that group fought handling on Sunday, when the checkers flew they were fourth while Wolfe’s calls led Keselowski to clean air and a weekend Vegas sweep when Earnhardt ran out of gas. It’s an early accomplishment for a group that came out swinging, ready to write more history together rather than fall another step behind the big boys.

“I love doing things that no one has done before, and that's a lot of fun for me, whether it's sending out a tweet during the middle of the Daytona 500 or trying to move on the racetrack to win a race,” Keselowski said. “Those moments to me are a lot of fun and probably the funnest moments in racing when you've done something no one else has done — they're a significant accomplishment that no one else can really own.”

That drive to be the best, to have an independent voice, is something you can see visibly at Team Penske, a stark contrast from the one-cog-in-the-wheel of Hendrick Motorsports. It keeps them in the game as a perpetual David vs. Goliath story and, so far in 2014, they’re armed with a dangerous slingshot.

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SECOND GEAR: New rules, more passing … with a big “but” attached
Vegas, despite a great last-lap ending formed when Earnhardt ran out of gas, was a mixed bag of racing competition. The Good: there were actual lead changes up front other than during a set of green-flag pit stops. Passing was not only possible but seen more than last year on intermediates; at one point, Kyle Busch fell to 41st after being blocked in his pit under yellow only to drive through traffic and lead the race. NASCAR’s new rules package has potential.

It also has a long way to go. Both Phoenix and Vegas, without debris, would have been virtually caution-free races. Drivers armed with so much grip make their jobs look almost too easy. Does the sport need wrecks? Not necessarily. But there’s an element lost for the fan when it appears, through caution-free races, that no one is driving on the ragged edge. Sunday also offered the same old criticisms of “clean” versus “dirty” air. Like magic, Carl Edwards took a 16th-place car to fifth after gaining track position under yellow. Clean air out front left the car a rocket ship, a decided edge over running in traffic and giving the top-5 cars too much of an advantage under green to get away before the tires evened out.

“All those guys continue to really hone in on these cars, find ways to make more downforce, and that’s just — it’s something happening through all of motorsports,” Keselowski said. “Not just NASCAR. You’re seeing the same thing in F1 and beyond.

“It’s making it very difficult to drive the cars in traffic, and it makes the cars very easy to drive by themselves. It’s just part of the evolution of racing; maybe not what we want to see from a fan perspective, but it’s just where the competitors are taking (it).

“We’ll see where it goes from here.”

Not all fans may take that “we’ll see” approach, so chances are NASCAR will keep tweaking the package until they believe it’s right. The sport is heading in the right direction, but it’s a problem when a guy like Earnhardt says his car is a Cadillac out front but junk with two-to-three cars around him.

THIRD GEAR: Hendrick appears a step ahead of the field
Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win on Sunday, as Earnhardt fell short with a strategy he said they used purely because of the new Chase format. But four cars inside the top 9 isn’t bad for an organization that remains, thus far in 2014, the best team in the Sprint Cup field.

Take this simple fact: three of the four HMS cars have yet to finish outside the top 10 this season. Even Jeff Gordon — much-maligned in recent years — has stayed consistent following a fourth in February’s Daytona 500. In 2013, their main opponent was Joe Gibbs Racing, but that three-car team has taken a step back by comparison; none of its cars were higher than 10th Sunday in a race Matt Kenseth took over Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne last March.

Certainly, as we talked at the top of this column, there’s a whole lot of season left. But considering Jimmie Johnson claims his team is still a step off the pace, Earnhardt is running on eight cylinders of confidence and even Kahne has righted the ship (eighth Sunday) it’s a team that has the most resources and the fewest weak links on the circuit. That makes it hard to beat.

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FOURTH GEAR: Michael Waltrip Racing’s rocky road to recovery.
It’s been almost six months since the Richmond fiasco that nearly destroyed the fabric inside Michael Waltrip Racing. That scandal cost the organization longtime sponsor NAPA, driver Martin Truex Jr. and, most importantly, respect within the NASCAR industry.

It’s a reputation and competitive level MWR is still trying hard to regain. Jeff Burton, running what’s become a de facto test team, was the best effort on Sunday, running 17th in a third car that will be driven by a potpourri of veterans and/or also-rans this season. The duo of Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer have yet to collect a top-10 finish and sit well outside the top 15 in points, struggling to remain relevant.

What’s the problem? More behind the scenes than in the cockpit. MWR lost two very talented crew chiefs, Rodney Childers and Chad Johnston, to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason. They seem to have left a void no one has completely replaced. At least the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville, where driver skill means more, are soon on the agenda: Vickers nearly won at Bristol driving the No. 55 two years ago, a run which aided to his full-time employment with MWR.

Rushing back for labor worked out well for Paul Menard. With his wife expecting their first child, Menard ran third — his best showing since Oct. 2012 — righting his season before hitching a plane back to North Carolina to be there in time for the birth. … Danica Patrick was a season-best 21st on Sunday. It was a step forward while the rest of SHR took a step back. No one else ran inside the top 25, though Kevin Harvick had a promising day go bad when a left-front hub broke. Worse? Tony Stewart was, at times, the slowest car in the field. Growing pains to a four-car organization continue. … Four debris cautions were the only slowdowns that littered a clean race in Vegas. The 154.633 mph average speed set a new record for a race that’s been around since 1998.

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.