Brad Keselowski stole the headlines with his amazing bounceback from a high-speed testing crash on Wednesday to win the Cup race at Pocono on Sunday, but the Penske driver's success has left Roush Fenway's David Ragan with a major problem and much-diminished chance of making it through to the Chase.
Ragan won his first Cup race at the beginning of July with victory at Daytona, and was 16th in the Cup standings going into the weekend giving him a realistic chance of taking one of the two Chase wildcard slots reserved for the drivers with the most number of race wins in positions 11 through 20 after September's Richmond race.
But a bad day at Pocono saw him spin out of the race on lap 20 of the 200 lap race: "We had a good run getting into turn three," he said of the accident. "Kyle was pretty fast coming up through the field and I just passed some cars on the bottom, so I went down there and I think two or three other cars [including David Reutimann] had the same idea and I just got pinched down. I had to keep it down and just ran out of race track and got loose and spun it out.
"I was probably a little too aggressive this early in the race, but if you're not aggressive on the restarts and pass a few cars, once you get strung out after 10 laps you just can't hardly pass. Our car was driving better than it did when they dropped the green flag and I was just trying to be as aggressive as I could and ran out of race track and didn't have enough room to chase it.
"Typically, you'd have a little bit of wiggle room and I wiggled a little bit trying to stay off of him and spun out," he continued. "If I had to do it all over again, I would have probably made the same decision, but I just didn't have enough room to do what I needed to do."
Although he described it as "just a racing deal", the spin left Ragan classified in 34th place at the end of the race, which drops him down to 19th place in the Cup standings. Worse, Keselowski's win boosts the Penske driver into play in the top 20, whose two wins put him into the Chase ahead of the one-race winners Denny Hamlin and Paul Menard who themselves are now both well ahead of Ragan in the points.
"Trying to make this Chase we need as many points as we can," Ragan admitted, stressing that he wasn't giving up on making the Chase quite yet. "I've said all along we need to be in that top 12 or 13, or get a second win, so there's still a lot of racing left. There is gonna be some bad luck for some of these other guys we're racing for it.
"You don't want to give up anything and we're gonna give up some points today, so that means we've got to go and be extra aggressive these next few races."
Brad Keselowski showed that it can happen, with his determination to race at Pocono delivering results beyond his wildest hopes: "I've always wanted to win a Cup race and earn it, not fuel mileage, not Talladega, a real win," said Keselowski. "And today feels like that. And for that, I'm real proud. And I can't wait to see what the next few months bring us."
But he also knows that, however good things look right now, it could all slip through his fingers all too easily in the five races remaining before the cut for the Chase. "I think winning two races is probably really good for our Chase hopes, gives us pretty high odds if we were playing poker, but nothing is 100 per cent until it's 100 per cent," he insisted. "So lots of races left. Keep plugging away. Maybe if we keep running like this, maybe we can get a third win and we'll be damn near immune, unless we fall out of the top 20."
Keselowski couldn't afford to miss Pocono, but with an estimated six weeks to allow the avulsion fracture to properly heal there is a question of whether he might decide that his chances on a more physical road course are so reduced that he might as well sit out next weekend's Watkins Glen outing, and put all his energy into getting ready for the gruelling 500 laps on the Bristol short track at the end of August.
"I'm a little tired in the car," he admitted after finishing the Pocono race, despite the rain delay that caused a one hour, 40 minute hiatus shortly after the midpoint of the race. "We got that rain delay, which was a great recharge session for me, and it's what we needed," he said, adding that before the red flag "I wasn't sure we were going to be able to win, but I felt we could finish somewhere around fifth."
Although the spectacular swelling on his fractured ankle
had reduced in the interim period, Keselowski still needed a brace on it in order to race and he agreed that it had proved to be "a huge factor because you have to modulate the brakes as you come into your pit stall. You brake real hard and then you come off, and I can't just modulate them. Once they lock up, I just can't stop," he said, explaining why he slid through his pit box during one visit to pit road during Sunday's race.
But all in all, it was still much better than Keselowski could have dared hope for just a few days before. "I was pretty sure after I hit the wall [during testing on Wednesday] that I had broken everything that I could break," he said. "I was hurting pretty good. I guess, you know, a few days recovery and I just healed up. I feel pretty decent now. Walking isn't all that easy, but that's just the deal. You get in the race car and make it work somehow."
Keselowski judged this injury as "probably my worst" in his career. Talking about the testing accident itself, he said: "I hit about as hard as you can hit in one of these cars and I'm still here somehow.
"As a driver, probably one of your worst nightmares is going through a corner, like that one was, without a safer barrier, without any of the stuff that we've got used to and got accustomed to, without brakes. And knowing that I had two or three seconds staring at a wall, knowing that I was going to hit it about as hard as you possibly could. Probably less comforting was knowing that it was a temporary wall and on the other side was trees, so I figured I was going to end up in the trees. Somehow, I made it through it, broke the wall down and came flying through on the other side.
"I consider myself a lucky guy to have walked away and be here," he said. "I've been really lucky that each day I've recovered tremendously ... I'm able to walk and do the things it takes to be a race car driver."
The result on Sunday proved that the accident hadn't shaken Keselowski's resolve one bit, or caused him to run any slower than before - although he did admit that in his first outings at Pocono after the accident, "I can tell you - I've checked my brakes a couple extra times before each corner."
As for the road course this weekend at Watkins Glen, some are suggesting that a savvy application of the NASCAR rules could be made to work in Keselowski's favour: if he were to start the race and then hand over to a relief driver - Jacques Villeneuve's name has been mentioned as a road course specialist appropriate for the task - then Keselowski would still collect any driver Cup points going at the chequered flag which could prove crucial to keeping Keselowski in the top 20 to be able to claim his wildcard advantage next month. Such a rule-dodge might not go down too well with others, but any criticism is likely to be muted now that Keselowski had proved his mettle with his win against all odds at Pocono despite his injuries.
Keselowski also paid tribute to his Penske team mate Kurt Busch, whose frustrated tirade over the team radio earlier this season when they were struggling for any sort of consistent performance has been widely credited for helping kick-start far-reaching changes with how the team approached its Cup races with almost instant improvement in results.
"I've got a good teammate in Kurt, he helped me out," Keselowski said. "It takes people like that and people on this team working together. It's really turned around Penske Racing. It's made it something that I'm really proud to be a part of and I'm looking forward to years of success here."