Talladega in the Springtime: Brad Keselowski! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Dodge hasn't won a NASCAR Cup championship since Richard Petty did it in 1975.
That was 37 years ago.
More than a generation ago.
The king was a youthful 38 that season, and some of his best years were still ahead of him, like that epic 1979 title fight with Darrell Waltrip and that legendary 1984 Daytona duel with Cale Yarborough.
Brad Keselowski comes into Sunday's race as Dodge's most potent title contender in years, decades even.
Keselowski, whose enthusiasm, savvy, wit and yes trickery has been fun to follow this season, is atop the Sprint Cup standings heading into Round Four of the playoffs.
And Roger Penske, Keselowski's team owner, has been almost beside himself these past few weeks, clearly relishing his driver taking the measure of the sport's 'Gold Standard,' Jimmie Johnson.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe outfoxed Johnson and Chad Knaus to win Chicago, and they outfoxed their rivals again Sunday at Dover, Del., in winning for the fifth time this season.
How ironic...that Chrysler-Fiat execs decided in August to bail out of NASCAR...that Chrysler-Fiat botched this American marketing program so badly.
Remember Dodge is a high-performance car brand. And Brad Keselowski is a high-performance NASCAR driver, just coming of age.
Are any Dodge-Chrysler-Fiat executives even paying attention?
Does it make any difference if they? Keselowski and Penske and Company are soon-to-be Ford stars.
Great job, Sergio.
That's not the only major story line this week.
Is the NASCAR championship boiling down to a three-man chase?
Three races into the 10-race playoffs, that's what it's looking like.
But is it time to concede that this 12-man chase simply doesn't work anymore.
First, there aren't 12 championship caliber teams in this sport, sorry. Five, maybe six at best. Maybe not even that.
It's a lot of marketing hype -- nothing wrong with that of course -- pretend otherwise.
And it does make for a nice presentation...if it didn't happen to come in mid-September, with the NFL and Major League Baseball dominating the sports world...and if it didn't feature an opening event the cornfields an hour west of Chicago itself.
But, honest, many in this sport, if not most, are simply playing through the 26-race regular season to make the chase itself, not really looking at challenging for the title. Make the chase and you can get a new contract, a new sponsor. But then maybe that's really what the chase has become.
Carefully stroke your way into the chase, then stroke your way through the chase.
Is that really NASCAR racing?
And who would be leading the points this week under the former Bob Latford system anyway?
One of the oddest story lines here is the Ford collapse in recent weeks.
Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Biffle shared the top spot in the standings for 21 of the year's first 28 weeks, but over the last month they've blown themselves right out of the chase.
The title fight now is Chevy's Johnson versus Dodge's Keselowski versus Toyota's Hamlin....maybe with a charge by one of the other contenders, maybe not.
Johnson is still the favorite, since he's won five titles over the last six years, while Hamlin and Keselowski are still looking for their first-ever.
Chevy has won the last seven Cup championships, and General Motors has won 31 Cup championships since Dodge and Petty in 1975.
And Ford? You can count Ford's Cup championships since 1975 on one hand.
Yet this season opened so promisingly for Ford, with that sizzling Daytona 500.
Another story line here:
Yes, the Talladega 500 is invariably billed as a wild card.
But drivers and teams have learned how to game the system over the past few years: they pretty much know, through hard knocks, how hard to race and how to race and when to race, and likewise the not-to-dos.
When Jimmie Johnson decides to lay so far back in the pack here as he does, hoping to evade any incidents, well, the game at Talladega has changed these past few years, particularly in the fall, when the title is on the line.
That's what made the two-car drafting, first seen early last season, so intriguing -- it changed the dynamic at Daytona and Talladega, changed the game plans, and injected a big dose of the unexpected into the racing.
However NASCAR executives, for some reason, decided they didn't like that two-car stuff, and for the last several plate races officials have been tinkering with engine water temperatures, to try to keep drivers from teaming up.
Has that made the racing better?
After this race last fall drivers were screaming about the water temperature rules, complaining that NASCAR's tinkering had really messed up the racing. Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick.
What the deal may be this time around, of course, is not yet known.
But already NASCAR is hard at work trying to tweak engine temperature rules for the 2013 Daytona 500. That's really what Wednesday's curious 2013 testing here was all about -- how hot could engines run for how long, how close could drivers keep to each other without overheating.
Maybe NASCAR should step aside and let crew chiefs and drivers figure out how to run Talladega and Daytona...
However one of the big story lines this weekend:
After three less-than-thrilling playoff races, at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, Del., things should certainly heat up here.
No, make that 'Must' heat up here.
But the worry is drivers and crews may decide to play it conservatively and try not to make mistakes that might cost them a shot at the championship.
However the sport desperately needs an exciting race here, to perk things up on the bigger screen, or risk this title chase becoming completely lost in the glut of rival sports and electioneering.
Talladega can produce some of the sport's wildest, most wide open action...and some boring follow-the-leader stuff, with too many drivers worried about getting caught up in 'the big one."
So this Talladega 500 may be one of the more cerebral races, with strategy more important that bold driving, at least until the final few laps.
Three men in particular have a lot to lose: Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin. They're at the top of the standings and pulling away slowly but surely.
Clint Bowyer, who sits fourth, 25 points down, may be the man to keep an eye on for how Round Four shapes up.
Bowyer has won here. But how aggressive will he be? That 25 points is about the difference between winning and finishing 20th. So, for example, if Keselowski were to win Sunday, and Bowyer finished 20th, well, that could toast it for Bowyer's title hopes.
Talladega is never an easy game to play, but for title contenders it can be even more excruciating. None of them wants to lose the championship here -- as Greg Biffle and teammate Carl Edwards did a few years ago, when their bump-drafting for the lead went awry.
Best bet for anything unusual Sunday is for one of the non-chase guys to look for heroics....like maybe Kyle Busch or Edwards.
But Busch has been erratic this season. And Sunday at Dover, when he had to pit for gas with 10 miles to go, after dominating the race, Busch launched into an angry tirade about Toyota's Los Angeles-based engine department.
Why Busch would be so angry about Toyota's TRD? Well, he has had engine problems this season, like a blown motor at Dover in the spring. And maybe that 'merger' between Joe Gibbs' long-independent engine shop in Charlotte and Toyota's own NASCAR engine shop in California wasn't all that pretty behind the scenes after all.
But certainly can't complain about horsepower. And that's just what make Hamlin such a formidable challenger to Johnson and Keselowski.