CUP: Keselowski, Team Hitting Stride

Brad Keselowski looked despondent as he patiently awaited the first question after Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

After all, the hometown favorite missed his first win at Michigan International Speedway by just 0.416 seconds. Still, the Rochester Hills, Mich., native mustered the energy to characterize the experience as “a great day.”

“It was just close to getting what would have been one of the biggest wins of my career,” said Keselowski, who grew up 90 miles northeast of the track and minutes away from his team owner Roger Penske’s corporate headquarters. “That would have been really special.”

What was “special” was the faith Keselowski gained in his crew during the race. Not that he ever doubted the dedication of crew chief Paul Wolfe and the Miller Lite team. With three races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Keselowski sits comfortably in fifth place in the points standings. And with three wins, Keselowski could very easily start NASCAR’s playoffs near the top of the standings.

Given the recent consistency of the No. 2 Brew Crew, they’re clearly up for the challenge.

“My team has done an excellent job over the last few weeks of hitting their marks, executing on all fronts, no mistakes, solid cars," Keselowski said. "I'm very proud of that. Just extremely proud of that.

“We're in a great position as a team as the Chase is about to start here to make some noise. I'm just feeling lucky to be there. But then, of course, we obviously want to win. I can taste the legitimacy of being a championship contender. With a little more speed today I think we could have got us a win. I know in the Chase we can get a bunch of 'em.”

Here are 10 other things to watch for as the Chase nears.

1. Head games

Before Jimmie Johnson’s engine failed, he and his team were completely spun out that Brad Keselowski cycled back to the lead on Lap 183 after pitting 14 laps earlier. “The more I think about it, it’s physically impossible,” Johnson said stunned. Crew chief Chad Knaus agreed that Keselowski’s position on the track “didn’t add up.” “I know, you’re as befuddled as we are,” Knaus said. “We're just going to pass the (crap) out of him and go win this race.” While neither driver won the race, a look at the "pit road times" sheet might offer the No. 48 team the answer it was seeking. The No. 2 crew was one of only six teams to make five pit stops. And Keselowski spent the least amount of time on pit road –186.873 seconds – more than three seconds less than Carl Edwards' team, which was second (189.939 seconds). So if Johnson is wondering where the time came from, look no further.

2. Safety first

Rodney Childers and crew prepared an incredibly fast car for Mark Martin at Michigan. Unfortunately, Martin never had the opportunity to see how it would finish after he was caught up in a wreck on Lap 64 that rocketed the 53-year-old into the pit wall opening in front of Kasey Kahne's team pit. The concrete crushed Martin’s car eight inches behind the driver’s seat. Fortunately, Martin walked away. While the team will wonder what might have been had Martin finished the race, the good news is that its driver will be able to race again.

3. Numbers game

Kudos to Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 team for their dramatic comeback after slamming into the back of Mark Martin on Sunday. Kahne had one of the fastest cars throughout the weekend before he sustained damage on the front end. Still, he was able to race back to a third-place finish and capitalize on the misfortunes of other drivers. With Denny Hamlin’s recent misfortunes and Tony Stewart’s engine failure Sunday, Kahne now trails those competitors by 33 and 34 points, respectively. With two short tracks in the final three races, as well as the race at Atlanta, where Kahne has two wins, he could move from wild card into the Chase Zone.

4. Get up on the wheel

Carl Edwards remains 12th in the points standings, five markers behind Kasey Kahne. But Edwards hasn’t posted a top-five finish since March at Fontana – tying his previous high finish of the season, fifth at Las Vegas. Without a win, Edwards will have to race his way into the Chase. With three races remaining, that looks highly unlikely.

5. Double duty

For drivers running multiple NASCAR races this weekend, Sam Hornish Jr. posted the best average finish after his second-place showing in Montreal and his 12th-place effort at Michigan. Hornish was forced to start at the back of the field at Michigan and reached the point on Lap 43. Hornish is tied for second in the Nationwide points. He and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. trail Elliott Sadler by 22 points. And a shoutout to Parker Kligerman, who practiced and qualified Hornish’s car then finished fourth in his Truck series debut with Red Horse Racing.

6. Breaking through

It’s rewarding to see a child of privilege refuse to become complacent when chasing his dreams. In NASCAR circles, the name Piquet certainly wasn’t well known when Nelson Piquet Jr. showed up two years ago. But this year, this Junior is making a name for himself in the stock developmental divisions with wins in both the Nationwide and Truck series. Piquet, 27, earned his victory at Road America in just his third Nationwide start. His Truck win Saturday came in his 42nd start, but since Daytona, Piquet has remained in the top 10 in the points standings. It will be interesting to see what his next move will be.

7. Changing of the guard?

Before Sunday, Toyota had won four of the past six races at Michigan International Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing was responsible for three of those wins with Denny Hamlin taking home two of the trophies. While all three Michael Waltrip Racing cars were solid this past weekend, Hamlin felt fortunate to finish 11th. "We didn't run very well,” Hamlin said. “We were a 15th- or 20th-place car most of the day and through attrition and what not, we got a good finish. We definitely have a lot of work to do, I feel like, on all aspects of our car right now."

8. Props ...

To Ryan Newman who manned up Sunday and drove to an eighth-place finish. Newman, who was so under the weather that he showed up for a TV hit with his shirt inside out, visited the infield care center for fluids before the race. Yes, this is a contract year for Newman, but we expect him to stay right where he is in 2013.

9. Second chances

Trevor Bayne was headed to a career-high finish at Michigan until he cut a left front tire with 18 laps remaining in the race. In his ninth start of the season, Bayne started sixth and maintained a presence in the top 10 for the first half of the race. Once Bayne made contact with the Turn 1 wall on Lap 192, he was fortunate to salvage a 24th-place finish in the venerable No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Bayne reprises his role in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford in the Nationwide Series this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, his home track. Bayne finished eighth at BMS in March but hasn’t driven a Nationwide car since Fontana.

10. Back to school reminder

Here’s a lesson for parents sending their children to school this week: If you don’t play nice with others and scatter your junk all over the place, you’re going to get sent the principal’s office. Right, Juan Pablo Montoya?