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Brad Keselowski! Again!

His third victory of the season, and now a formidable title contender (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    By Mike Mulhern


    BRISTOL, Tenn.
    Wowser, wowser – Brad Keselowski, again?
    Yes, Keselowski, one of the sport's newest, youngest stars, continued his stunning summer run through the NASCAR tour and pulled off another surprise Saturday night, winning for the third time this season, in front of a near-sellout crowd at 160,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway.

    And the 27-year-old Keselowski -- never better than 13th here, and nursing a broken left foot – now should be considered one of the legitimate challengers for this season's Sprint Cup championship. He is not just winning and logging top-threes – that's four in a row now – but he is outrunning the tour's biggest stars. Here he outran Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to win.
    Gordon dominated the race, leading more than 200 of the 500 laps. But Keselowski won the final charge on pit road. "Those guys are on a roll right now, and we all have to keep our eye on him,  because he's strong," Gordon said in admiration. "They're strong, and if you put them in position at the end of a race, they're going to win.
   "We always knew he was a good race driver, but he's really stepped up. After Atlanta (crashing while testing at Road Atlanta three weeks ago), he's been on a tear."
   Keselowski seems almost amazed at the whirlwind run: "This is the race of champions…..Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough….
   "There may be other races with more prestige, but this is the coolest race of all, the August night race at Bristol. I can't believe it, I just can't believe it.
   "That last pit stop my guys got me out ahead of Jeff Gordon, and then we passed Martin Truex for the lead….
   "Jeff was the guy to beat….but we just got out front and drove away.
   "This sport is in cycles, and we've been at the bottom of the cycle, and now we're at the top, and when you're at the top you need to capitalize on it."


Brad Keselowski at the finish line of Saturday night's Bristol 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    The first four months of the season the Roger Penske men, Keselowski and teammate Kurt Busch, were far off the pace of their rivals. Kurt Busch then blew up vocally at Richmond in May, and by June both drivers were very hot.
   Now Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are the hottest team in NASCAR.
    "We've kind of got things going for us now, and it's just a lot of little things," Wolfe said. "No matter how things turn out in the chase, we can't be disappointed."
    "There wasn't much of a race at the end for first, with Brad out there on four fresh tires," Gordon said. "But we had a heck of a battle back there.
   "We just didn't get the position we needed."
   Truex was also something of a surprise, outrunning Gordon for second.

    Johnson, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth all clinched playoff spots for the 10-race chase, which opens Sept. 18th in Chicago.
    Edwards was expected to be a contender Saturday but he wasn't.  "We struggled all night, but we made it to the end," Edwards said. "And we've locked into the chase, which is huge."
    Keselowski was a dismal 25th in the standings coming out of Charlotte in late May, and he was still mired 21st coming out of Indianapolis four weeks ago.   But now he's surged to 11th in the points, just 21 points behind 10th-place Tony Stewart.
    And this performance – following a win at Pocono, a second at Watkins Glen, and a third at Michigan – was another stunner.

      Not a good night for Mark Martin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    A year ago here Keselowski made headlines for his pre-race snip to the crowd "Kyle Busch is an ass," after their run-in in the previous night's Nationwide race. This time Keselowski not only made headlines with a win but a win on a night where Busch was oddly far off his game.
    Kyle Busch finished 14th but was never really a factor.
    But then Kyle is already locked into the chase.
    And Busch's night wasn't nearly as bad as it was for others, like Stewart (28th), Greg Biffle (31st), Paul Menard (30th), Clint Bowyer (26th), and Kevin Harvick (22nd).
   Biffle had a loose wheel, which felt like a flat tire, and his unscheduled stop under green put him way behind.
   Stewart was, incredibly, the slowest qualifier for this race, and he didn't have much to show during the night, finishing three laps down.
   Menard got caught up in a bumping contest between David Stremme and David Reutimann.
   Bowyer and teammate Harvick just never ran well at all, and Harvick griped to his crew that he hasn't had a solid run in four months.
   Denny Hamlin salvaged seventh on a bad night, but that may not help him make the playoffs. He's 13th, with one win. However, at the moment, with Atlanta and Richmond the only races left before the playoff cut, Hamlin would make the cut over Menard, who also has one win but is lower in points. Menard would have to make up 41 points – approximately 41 finishing positions – on Hamlin to make the chase.



  Star crew chief Greg Zipadelli does more than just hunt tricks at the track. And his TV show on The Outdoor Channel keeps him busy (Photo: The Outdoor Channel)






   For those who think that there's not enough cheatin' in NASCAR Cup racing, and that things would be livelier if more teams were pushing the limits:

   -- Which Sprint Cup team – or teams -- got caught with illegal bolts – extremely heavy tungsten bolts below the frame rails, and extremely light titanium (Ti) bolts above the frame rails? Was there a NASCAR penalty? And is that entire operation now in Dutch with NASCAR officials?

   -- Which Sprint Cup team got caught with an oversized transmission tunnel at Martinsville, a piece of low-in-the-car hardware that usually weighs about six pounds…but which in this case was made of heavy material and weighed over 100 pounds? To lower the center of gravity and make the car turn better in the corners. And was there a NASCAR penalty?

   Rumors are ripe again that Greg Zipadelli is being wooed by Tony Stewart to leave the Joe Gibbs operation and move to Stewart's team. However it appears that Zipadelli has at least one more year on his contract with Gibbs, and it's unclear if Gibbs would okay an early out.
   Part of the reason for those rumors may be the curious qualifying runs here Friday – Ryan Newman taking the pole, and teammate Stewart qualifying dead last. Apparently the two crew chiefs, Newman's Tony Gibson and Stewart's Darian Grubb, don't see eye to eye on a lot of things.

   Greg Zipadelli, Joey Logano's crew chief for three years now, says he's curious about the Stewart rumors. "Me and Tony just had a couple of beers over at the studio the other day, but no one's approached me about any job there," Zipadelli says.
   Yes, Zipadelli has his own TV studio, and a highly-rated hunting show, Drop Zone TV, 52 weeks a year. A road crew does much of the shooting, and Zipadelli does the hosting from his studio.  http://www.dropzonehunting.com/
   "It's the top-rated hunting show….and I'm looking for some business partners," Zipadelli says.


   What is the real story behind the Toyota engine operation, the supposed TRD-Gibbs merger?
   There is the distinct sense that Toyota officials have not been telling the entire story.
   Part of the puzzle, of course, is Mark Cronquist, the veteran engine man who has headed the Gibbs operation for years. Cronquist hasn't been seen much lately, and now there are questions about just where Cronquist might fit into the new TRD engine program.
   So Toyota has sealed a deal with Daytona International Speedway to have a Camry pace the Daytona 500 next February?
   And who at General Motors dropped the ball on those negotiations and let that prize pace car package get away?
   It may be time to ask Chevy's Jim Campbell how GM lost that Daytona deal.

   A Danica Patrick update: Cup team owner Tony Stewart is apparently considering badging Patrick's Cup car next season 14, so Patrick would start the season with the Cup points that Stewart himself has earned this season. That, effectively, would lock Patrick into the year's first five races at least, regardless of how slow she might qualify. In turn, Stewart would of course be able to use his own 'champion's provisionals' if he were to have any trouble qualifying.

   Cracked sparkplugs?
   That's what Carl Edwards said was his engine's demise at Michigan Sunday.
   Some here think that might be a cover-up. However two other engine builders report having cracked sparkplugs too earlier this year, a problem they blame on "bad porcelain."

    With Dover Motorsports dropping its two annual Nationwide events at the Lebanon, Tenn., Nashville Speedway, NASCAR executives are looking to replace those events if possible. One option heard here would be to put a Nationwide event at the venerable Nashville Speedway, in the heart of town. However how much money would have to be put into renovations could be a major stumbling block: consider: http://bit.ly/qH7slG
   The Lebanon track is an hour east of town.
   And there is still no word on NASCAR's negotiations for a 2012 Nationwide date again in Montreal. Part of that debate is over a request for $500,000  from the local tourist department.

   More on the Nationwide crewman injured Friday here under his team's race car: It appears now that Corey Howe was on a crawler under the car when driver TJ Bell started the engine and the car began moving before Howe could get out from under it. Howe was taken to an area hospital, where he was examined, treated and released.



 These dogs will hunt. NASCAR crew chief Greg Zipadelli (R) and buds, after a hard day in the woods (Photo: The Outdoor Channel)


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