10 October 2014
NASCAR Sprint Cup Charlotte: Last chance to control Chase fate - Keselowski
Brad Keselowski has admitted that he's anxious about the current Contender Round of the 2014 Chase, and fears dropping out of the title battle.
Brad Keselowski came into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series as top seed in the play-offs for the championship title, but disaster at Kansas last weekend has put him on the backfoot and acutely nervous about making it through to the third round of the play-offs.
The new Chase format sees 16 drivers go into a ten-race battle for the title, but this year those ten races are split into three rounds of three races each, at the end of which the four lowest-scoring drivers without a win are cut from contention. The first round went well for Keselowski when he immediately secured his progression with victory first time out at Chicagoland, but it's the second round that has always worried him because of the tracks involved.
"The contender bracket, that one scares the crap out of me,” said Keselowski, who won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. "You see a lot of wrecks at Kansas and Talladega, that makes it really tough to control the outcome." That leaves this weekend's outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway as his best bet of securing safe passage to the next Chase stage.
"The only way you can really feel comfortable with that bracket is if you go to Charlotte and win the race. I think that bracket will break some hearts and that is the most concerning thing to us," he admitted. "You go to Charlotte and win in that bracket and get to the next round, that will be a huge momentum swing for a team."
Keselowski's team mate at Penske, Joey Logano, agreed with Keselowski's assessment of the risk of the current Chase round.
"This is probably going to be a round that knocks somebody out that can win this championship or had a really good shot at it," said Logano, who is himself already safely through to the third round after picking up the race win at Kansas last weekend which means he's safe regardless of what happens now at Charlotte or Talladega. "You look at the guys who have been fast throughout the whole year, and you see them kind of in the bottom three right now. That's pretty surprising."
Shockingly Keselowski is now one of those three big names in the drop zone, after his earlier fears about the Contender Round started to come true when a blown tyre at Kansas saw him finish in 36th place many laps off the lead. With Talladega being such an unpredictable outing for everyone, winning at Charlotte is the only way that Keselowski knows that he can be sure of progressing in the play-offs.
"We know we are in a hole, but we also know we can win our way out of this hole," he said. "The easiest approach is to go to Charlotte and win."
Keselowski admitted that he was lamenting the fact that the points lead he'd enjoyed earlier in the season didn't transfer to the Contender Round in which everyone was reset to start equal on 3000 points regardless of previous form.
"The bad side of this Chase is we took a big points lead in here and gave it all back to zero," he agreed. "The good side of it is that you can still win your way out of it and we have two really good tracks for us ahead. If we can just win at one of them we will be fine."
The Charlotte weekend has already failed to start as well as Keselowski would have liked given the stakes involved for him: he was only 31st fastest in Thursday's practice session, and subsequently ended up qualifying for the Bank of America 500 down in 17th place on the grid after both he and Logano failed to make it through to the top 12 pole shoot-out, one of the very few times the pair not made it through to the final stage of qualifying all year.
"We've been off a little bit in qualifying trim since we've been here, but I thought our race trim was really good in practice and that's the most important thing so we'll keep working," Keselowski insisted. "Our first round was not where we wanted to be and the guys worked on it and got us a little more speed. That got us to the next round and then we still didn't quite have enough. It was a good effort by everyone on the #2 crew - we think we have a solid race car."
Charlotte had been one of the tracks that Penske selected to test on in 2014, but Keselowski explained why this hadn't translated to a better qualifying effort on Thursday evening: "We didn't work on any qualifying stuff," he said, adding: "And we didn't get our full test in because of rain, so it's kind of a 50/50 deal."
The trouble with a disappointing qualifying showing is that the 1.5-mile speedway is not the easiest to pass on during the race, putting a premium on the starting position. "It's a big track position race, but there are a lot of variables that can break that up," Keselowski admitted. "That could certainly open things up as well.
"There have been races where we started up front and not finished up front and there's races where we start towards the back and raced to the front. It ebbs and flows. Everything that goes down will come back up and you just have to ride it while you can," he added.
If Keselowski does make it among the eight drivers who progress past the Contender Round, then the following three races in what has been dubbed the Eliminator Round take place at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. After Phoenix, the final cut is made and the four leading drivers will face-off in a winner-takes-all Ford EcoBoost 400 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to decide the champion.
"I think you have four brackets and all four brackets are going to demand something different out of you so in some ways you have to have a different approach," summed up Keselowski. "The third bracket will take you from eight to four and that bracket will demand performance, and then the fourth bracket at Homestead will be about staying cool under pressure.
"There's a lot at stake but it is every weekend," he continued. "This is part of the challenge. For us, [Charlotte] is a very Homestead-like weekend. We need to perform. This is our last chance to really control our destiny in the Chase for this round and we want to make the most of this opportunity."
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