Bristol was not Brad Keselowski's finest hour this season, and that wreck cost him in the race to the chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It's make-or-break time for half a dozen stock car racers battling to make the championship playoff cut. The pressure is most intense on Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Newman over these next eight days and last two regular season races.
And Joey Logano and Greg Biffle aren't breathing easy either.
For most of the season Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have been far more consistent than any of their title rivals, and the championship could well still boil down to those two.
However Tony Stewart's improbable title run in 2011 – when he won five of the last 10 races to take the crown, after a very mediocre regular season – gives hope to the rest of the challengers.
Keselowski, who won the title last fall, concedes he's under the gun. He's got eight days to make something happen or become the first champion not to make it to the following season's playoffs in several years.
Now making the playoffs has become an end-all/be-all for many teams since the chase format was first used in 2004. Just making the playoffs is the goal, not really challenging for the title.
Of course given Johnson's virtual stranglehold on the final 10-race chase part of the 36-race tour, that's probably a good way to look at it. Stewart and Keselowski are the only two others to win a chase title since Kurt Busch's surprising run to the 2004 championship.
And Keselowski all but gave the title away at Homestead 10 months ago.
Keselowski has not been all that happy this season. He opened well, but that April-Texas rear-end controversy seemed to knock him and his team for a loop, and they didn't start getting back on track until New Hampshire last month.
"In this world it's easy to get kicked in the gut pretty quick," Keselowski says.
"There are a lot of things that have been outside of our control that haven't gone our way, which has been very frustrating.
"It's inevitable it's a bit of a rollercoaster, and we're at the bottom of it right now, no doubt about it.
"But the key to the sports world, and really the key to life, isn't about falling down, it's about getting back up.
"I'm confident, because I started from nothing (last season) and was able to win a championship. We were able to climb that hill, we were able to climb that mountain. I'm confident we'll be able to do it again."
However last weekend's run at Bristol certainly wasn't a morale booster. Keselowski says that the worst he's run lately. "We were probably a 15th-place car…and then we got caught up in a wreck -- which is what happens when you run in that position."
One thing Keselowski, and fellow Ford drivers, appear to have going against him is a lack of speed.
While Ford men Keselowski and Carl Edwards were fastest in single-lap practice, the two fastest on 10-lap runs were Chevy's Jeff Gordon and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ford? Is that engine power or aerodynamics?
"I know there are a lot of requests to change the aero of the Fords for next season," Keselowski revealed. "And I would surmise those will be approved.
"Essentially Ford came in as the first car (in the 2013 styling for NASCAR).
"There were several changes and modifications made to the (new) car that were permitted for the other manufacturers; the Fords had already submitted their car and did not get those.
"It's my understanding Ford will be allowed to essentially catch back up….(it) will be very interesting to see how that plays out.
"Quite honestly, in the Ford camp there's a lot of disappointment around how that scenario unfolded. But it's something we'll work around and do the best we can with."
But then the unofficial NASCAR line is that the sport's three car makers were told, during development of these 2013s, to work out issues among themselves and not to complain publicly about anything.
Now though the disparity among the Ford, Chevy and Toyota teams is too easy to see:
Chevy has 10 wins, Toyota has nine wins, Ford has only four wins – at Phoenix, Talladega, and both Michigans.
Toyota drivers have led 3,023 laps; Chevy drivers have led 2,748 laps; Ford drivers have led just 888 laps.
Toyota's Matt Kenseth and Chevy's Jimmie Johnson and Toyota's Kyle Busch have led far more laps than rivals: 1144, 1139 and 1066, respectively. Carl Edwards is Ford's lap leader, with 333.
Toyota's Kenseth has won five times. Johnson has won four times. No Ford driver more than one win.
So Keselowski's chances of making the playoffs aren't looking all that good.
"Some people say 'You've got to be scared about not making it.' But I look at this as a tremendous opportunity to prove the merits of our team," Keselowski insists.
"Our back is against the wall. But these are the times where great teams step up and make something happen… where great drivers step up and make a play. That's what I'm looking forward to – the opportunity to prove what we're made of.
"I'm honestly looking forward to this week and next week because I think we're going to be really strong. Atlanta and Richmond suit our team very well. We tested both tracks, and had very successful sessions."
The biggest wild card in Sunday night's Atlanta 500 could be Goodyear's new right-front tire, with a 'two-zone' compound. The outside part of the tread is last year's Atlanta compound; the inside part is a tougher Michigan design. The same tire will likely be used also at Kansas Oct. 6th.
"The inside edge sees a lot of heat, a lot of wear, a lot of stress, and that has all been amplified by this new car because of the increased speeds," Keselowski says.
"The (new) tires will still fall off (in lap speed), and that's very, very important to our racing. But it's also very important to Goodyear to have a safe tire, so we don't have headlines about blowouts.
"The tire essentially got -- I don't want to say rushed into production -- but brought in by necessity, because last year's tire with this year's car, this year's speeds, this year's cambers, this year's increased under-the-hood temperatures, was completely incompatible to the track. We were looking at 5-to-10 lap runs, and the scenario was probably worse than what we had at Indianapolis (in 2008).
"This tire came in and -- knock on wood - saved the day.
"Hopefully that will be the same scenario when we race."
Of course a cheaper solution might simply have been to just slow the cars down. Speeds this season are up four to five mph.
Keselowski says the new technique, of using two compounds in one tire, could possibly be used at other tracks.
"Specifically, the tracks that have zero falloff," he says."Kansas, Pocono, Michigan, Phoenix, these repaved tracks where that is a real issue."