Brad Keselowski, one of the more inventive drivers on the Sprint Cup tour, has maneuvered his way out of some unusual positions over the years.
Now he’s in a doozy. But not necessarily in a bad way.
Keselowski, who’s riding high in his third full-time Sprint Cup season, is likely to be one of the championship favorites when the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins Sept. 16 in Chicago. He, defending champion Tony Stewart and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson lead the series in victories with three each, and Chase drivers with the most wins will start the playoffs atop the standings.
So, barring a collapse of epic proportions, Keselowski figures to be very much in the mix in the run for the championship. He finished a surprising fifth last season.
The odd thing about Keselowski’s position this year is that he could deliver a driver championship to a car manufacturer that will pack it away as it leaves the sport.
Dodge’s Ralph Gilles announced this week that the car builder will be leaving NASCAR at the end of this season, a departure largely instigated by Keselowski’s team owner, Roger Penske, who decided early in the season to switch from Dodges to Fords for 2013.
That means Keselowski will be pursing the Cup championship as a lame duck, a very unusual status. Gilles said this week Dodge will continue to support Penske and Keselowski with its best efforts through the end of the season.
“We are committed to and focused on the 2012 season with Mr. Penske and will do everything within our power to secure, hopefully, a Chase win and championship and also a championship, potentially, in the Nationwide Series (with Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr.),” Gilles said.
“Now all of our efforts are going to be behind Brad and Sam and doing everything in our power to support them. We are doing well. I mean, I'm really, really proud of what Brad has accomplished and his consistency in the first half of the season. It’s getting really interesting. I think that (championship) would be wonderful. It would be almost a fairy tale story to leave on the highest note possible for now.”
Keselowski, who praised Gilles on Twitter for “facing the music” and personally answering the tough questions about Dodge’s departure in a news conference, could get a leg up on his top-of-the-Chase competition with a win Sunday in the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen. He hasn’t won at the track but finished second last year despite competing with a broken ankle.
“Watkins Glen is an extremely fast road course,” Keselowski said. “It’s not nearly as technical as Sonoma, and it doesn’t require as much finesse, but you still have to hit your marks. At the Glen, you need to concentrate on where you can brake heavily and where you can put the power down when you need to so that you carry big runs down the straightaway.
“To me, Watkins Glen is more of a stock car driver’s road course. You can throw your car around a little more than Sonoma, especially with the new runoff areas, because you don’t have to worry about getting stuck in the sand traps anymore. I’m still learning how to be a better road course racer, but it’s starting to click with me. I was really proud of our second-place run at the Glen last year. Hopefully, we can be one spot better on Sunday.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.