Despite losing the Chase for the Sprint Cup points lead to Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski is pleased with the outcome of Sunday's race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Keselowski had struggled at Martinsville in the past, but after qualifying 32nd there last Friday, Keselowski knew he was facing his biggest test at this 0.526-mile track. He entered this race with a seven-point lead over Johnson in the Chase championship..
Johnson won at Martinsville and earned a total of five bonus points, including two for leading the most laps (193). He now holds a two-point advantage over Keselowski, as three races remain -- Texas (next Sunday), Phoenix (Nov. 11) and Homestead (Nov. 18).
Keselowski methodically made his way through the field before grabbing the lead for the first time with less than 25 laps remaining in the 500-lap race at Martinsville. Johnson had pitted from the lead during a caution, while Keselowski elected to stay on the track and take over the top spot. He collected one bonus point for leading a lap.
But Johnson quickly passed Keselowski for the lead after the restart and then held off Kyle Busch in the closing laps to take the checkered flag. With older tires, Keselowski faded in the end to finish sixth.
Once again, Keselowski dodged a bullet to keep his championship hopes very much alive.
"It just feels like you live another day," Keselowski said. "It's like being in a war and surviving a battle. It's not necessarily a win, but you're just happy to still be living."
Keselowski's qualifying result at Martinsville was his worst one of the season.
"All year long, we've qualified terribly," he said. "I think our best qualifying effort has been a fourth or a fifth, except for the rain at Bristol. It hasn't been our strong suit, and I know that. If I had an answer for it, I'd fix it."
Last week, Keselowski and Johnson survived a wild race at Kansas, which had recently been repaved. Keselowski avoided one crash after another to finish eighth, while Johnson miraculously bounced back from a wreck midway through the race to place ninth.
Johnson was not as fortunate earlier this month at Talladega, where he finished 17th after being involved in the 25-car crash on the final lap. He bounced back with a third-place run at Charlotte. Keselowski finished seventh at Talladega and then 11th at Charlotte.
"We need to do more than survive to win the championship," Keselowski said. "We've done that the last two weeks, but we know we need to win. I'm not surprised at all that Jimmie won (at Martinsville). He had the fastest car all weekend, so we need to take the weekends where we're not the fastest and execute, get solid finishes. We did that this week and last week. Now, over the next three weeks, we need to make sure that we have the speed to match the execution. And if we can do that, then we can win this thing."
Right now, Johnson and Keselowski appear to be the front runners for the championship. Johnson is attempting to win his sixth Sprint Cup title in seven years.
In 2010, Johnson was in a hotly contested battle with Hamlin for the championship. Hamlin held the points lead heading into the season finale at Homestead but ended up losing the title to Johnson.
"The championships I've won, I saw a lot of amazing things out of my competition," Johnson said. "I'm certainly seeing that with Brad. So it's just that familiar space where you can't count him out. That's the reason I had that tone in my voice in (Friday's) qualifying. I knew they had a poor qualifying effort, but they would be there when the checkered fell. They're a good team. I have to expect that. We all do. That goes for the rest of the year."
With Talladega, Kansas and Martinsville now out of the way, Keselowski has an upbeat feeling about the final three races. Texas and Homestead are both 1.5- mile tracks, while Phoenix is one mile in length. His two wins in this year's Chase have come at Chicagoland, which is a mile and a half, and Phoenix, a one-miler.
"I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead," he said. "I feel like those are two races that we can race the 48 car (Johnson) heads up in speed and maybe even a little bit better than them. I'm not quite so sure about Phoenix, but you know the execution we have in this team right now is second to none. If we'd have had just a little bit more speed this week and last week, I think we could have been in victory lane."