Jubilant: Brad Keselowski at Charlotte. Now hopefully NASCAR officials won't try to take the new-found steam out of his sails (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
In the grand scheme of things, Brad Keselowski's win here Saturday night, in such a furious finish, won't play big in the championship picture, not this time around.
Keselowski had such a dramatic charge to the Sprint Cup title last fall, but this year he didn't make the playoffs. And to be honest Keselowski hasn't made many headlines over the season.
Keselowski last year and the year before was such a wide open, brash talker, who was quite willing to take to Twitter and voice his opinions.
This year, however, Keselowski, since April, has been virtually silent. Not really silent, of course, but far less talkative and much more careful about what he says and when.
He opened the year with some controversial statements at Daytona in February and got chewed out by NASCAR CEO Brian France. And then things went downhill fast at Texas in April, when Keselowski and new teammate both got caught up in that trick rear end controversy, that led to heavy NASCAR penalties and appeals and just bad vibes that took the team off its game.
The team got back in gear in mid-July, even finished second at Watkins Glen. But a flurry of late summer issue, like that blown engine at Atlanta Labor Day weekend, cost the team a shot at the playoffs.
This year's title fight appears all but down to Matt Kenseth versus Jimmie Johnson, virtually tied for the points lead five races into the 10-race chase. Kevin Harvick had an off-night but rallied to a surprising sixth to hang on in the title chase, though falling to 29 points behind. Jeff Gordon, seventh, is still almost still in the hunt, 36 down. Kyle Busch, who had a strong car here Saturday but had some problems, finishing fifth, falling to 37 points down.
The rest of the 13-man title contenders are essentially out of it.
Getting Brad Keselowski back in gear is very important for this sport...though it's not clear Daytona executives really understand the full import of that (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For whatever reason, non-playoff teams rarely win during the playoffs.
So Keselowski's win was something of an anomaly.
And Keselowski is going to milk it for all he can....which may be very good for the sport, since his exuberance has been quite refreshing.
"To win like we did, with some adversity, and then battling two stallions at the end, it's a great win," Keselowski said.
"We've had great race cars, but every time it seems like something's happened," crew chief Paul Wolfe said. "We haven't done anything different from what we did to win a championship."
"Every driver in our stable has now won a race for us," team owner Roger Penske said.
"When we saw the jack under the car, on that pit stop, I was thinking 'Oh, no, here we go again.' But we came back."
The final pit stop, with less than 30 laps to go, came down to track position versus four tires.
"With not many cars on the lead lap (only 12 by then), I thought it was an easy call to take four tires," Wolfe said.
"And I wasn't leaving the pits until I got lefts too," Keselowski said with a laugh.
Not much drama over most of the 3-1/2 hours of the Charlotte 500...but a little too much drama here for Mark Martin, losing an engine (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Matt Kenseth was certainly not disappointed with his third place run. But the stress of the season and the playoff pressure is easily telling, on both him and Johnson.
"This is a tough deal," Kenseth said of the sport. "It's hard to run up front every week. It's hard to win races. It's hard to do all that.
"And I felt Jimmie probably had us beat. I'm not sure about Kasey, because I didn't race with him that much. But I felt we had a 2nd or 4th or 5th place car at worst.
"We finished a little better, so I'd call that a successful night.
"They put me in a chance to win at the end.... and I couldn't get it done. But for where we started, and how we were the first two runs of the race, my whole team did an incredible job. I was happy where we ran, happy where we finished.
"You've got to be able to run in the top-5 every week to have a shot at this deal. I know you're not going to finish there every week, but I think you have to be good enough to finish there every week, and not make mistakes, and hopefully get good finishes."
Round Five of NASCAR's championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)