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Brad's Take: Some interesting quirks in this championship chase...in what has already been a crazy NASCAR season

 Team owner Roger Penske (L) and Brad Keselowski celebrating the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide championship. And what lies ahead in 2011? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Where's the home run in NASCAR?
   Oops, there isn't one.
   Lead all the laps, win the race, dominate the game from start to finish – and for that, all you get is six points, max, over the guy who finishes second.

   And then consider what happens to a guy who blows an engine just three laps from the finish and winds up, say, 34th – for that, you could lose a whopping 38 points.
   Where's the potential home run ball the next week?
   Where's the grand slam play that can get you back in the game?
   NASCAR doesn't have it.
   And NASCAR executives need to add that 'home run' to this sport's championship chase.
   A game-breaker points scenario, so a driver deep in a hole can step to the plate, knock one out of the park, and get back in contention.
   That missing link has long been a major flaw in stock car racing's title game.
   One bad day and your championship hopes are history.
   Just ask Jeff Gordon.
   That's one major reason that Sprint Cup contenders are quick to get into the 'stroking' mode.
   Making one mistake can be devastating.
   Because the sport offers no way to 'knock a home run' and fight back into the game.


  Brad Keselowski (L) and Carl Edwards, making peace (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Brad Keselowski isn't the first driver to notice that fatal flaw in the championship rules.
   This is Keselowski's first run at the Cup title, and "the interesting thing about the chase is you're not rewarded so much for good days as you are punished for bad days.
    "It's very strange like that. 
    "There are no 'playmaker' moments like you see in college football…like an 80-yard break through the center of the line for a touchdown. 
   "You don't have that in our deal.
    "So you find yourself the whole time thinking 'Don't screw this up.'
    "It's very much a 'Don't screw up' mentality throughout the garage for everybody, but especially chase drivers."
    That has long been a major failing of the NASCAR championship point system, old and new: There is no 'Home run' scenario, where a driver deep in a hole can blast one over the fence and get back in the game.
    No game-breaker here.
    But any weekend can clearly be a game-buster. With no way to make a comeback….


   Carl Edwards (L) pouring championship chase champagne on Brad Keselowski at Richmond (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Brad Keselowski? Well, he's shown this season he's no fluke.
   And as the NASCAR playoffs go on – Round Five is Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway – the stronger Keselowski seems to get.
   Whatever happened to that broken ankle…..
    "It's a hell of a story, isn't it?" Keselowski says with a grin.
   Being backed by Roger Penske is certainly a plus….though having volatile Kurt Busch as a teammate does perhaps add a little more drama that he might need in a title bid. After all, when it comes to controversy, Keselowski does quite well on his own – as we saw just last week at Kansas, in that latest twist in the long-running debate with now-fellow title contender Carl Edwards.
   Keselowski, in his third full-time season on the tour, comes from a well-known racing family, but it was that wild Talladega finish back in 2009 that really marked him as a comer.
   Now, amazingly, this 27-year-old is just 11 points off the Sprint Cup tour lead midway through the playoffs.

    Brad Keselowski: can he be the one to end Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR championship reign? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Keselowski has three tour wins this season.
   First was that gas-mileage win at Kansas in June, a race that Busch dominated, and Keselowski led just nine laps. Up till then Keselowski's season had been quite mediocre; he was mired in the 20s in the standings, with little to show for his the start of his second year with Penske.
   In fact, it wasn't for another six weeks that Keselowski finally got things rolling, at Kentucky. From that point – and ignoring that bad day at Loudon, a 35th – he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have scored a stunning finishing average of 5.9 over those 12 races.
   Whatever switch they flipped, whatever trick they found, it's certainly working.
   Can Brad Keselowski really be the Jimmie Johnson stopper?
   Wouldn't it be amazing if the man who finally brings Penske that first Cup championship is not Rusty Wallace or Ryan Newman or Kurt Busch, but instead this lanky kid from Michigan, who doubles as Friday night bartender at times (for sponsor Miller).

    Brad Keselowski (outside) and Carl Edwards, at Kansas last week, in one of their controversial restarts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  As the chase goes on, Keselowski is looking more and more like a very legitimate championship contender, not just an interesting sidelight.
   But then it has been a rather wacky season overall….
   "Jimmie did a really good job talking about how crazy this year has been," Keselowski says.
   "I don't know whether it's the tires or the cars or what in particular…
   "But trying to have confidence in whether you've got a good car or not is just unbelievably difficult. Because small changes in the track, or in the conditions -- whether it's weather or rubber on the track -- are just night-and-day on how the car drives."
   For a guy who hasn't been around this tour that long, Keselowski has certainly come-of-age this summer and early fall.   
   Each week almost he seems a bit older and wiser.
   Was it just last season that he and Edwards kept bouncing each other around, childishly?
   Both men seem to have matured a great deal since then.
   And Keselowski, well, maybe he's just too new to this part of the game to realize just what he's got going right now. Remember Mark Martin has been at this game for 30 years without a title…..and it's been 10 years since the great Jeff Gordon last won the championship.
   But as each week passes Keselowski seems bolder and bolder:
   "I feel this team deserves to be in the points lead right now. If you look at the last 10 races, we've scored way more points than anyone else. 
   "I feel we're there; we're ready to be the points leader."

   Crew chief Paul Wolfe's over-the-wall guys, taking care of Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Keselowski's is clearly on the upward curve: "Absolutely!  Yeah, absolutely.
   "The longer you're in it, and the more good weeks you have, the better I feel about where we're at and what we can accomplish."
   Head games?
   Johnson a few weeks ago tried to throw a few at Keselowski. But it didn't appear to work.
   Now Keselowski seems to be throwing a few at some of his title rivals: "If you're more than 20 points out, you're scared…and you should be.
   "There's still a long ways to go, and you can't win it at this point, but you can sure as hell lose it."
   To the point – Kyle Busch is exactly 20 points down, and Tony Stewart is 19.
    Keselowski is still kicking himself for not doing better at Dover: "But it wasn't a setback based on performance or bad decisions.  It was a setback based on a tire that threw rubber up and destroyed everything under the side of my car."
    Mind games?
   Maybe that's what Edwards was throwing at Keselowski at Kansas, complaining about his restarts.
   Keselowski beat Edwards in a 1-2 finish in the 300. However Edwards had complained to NASCAR about Keselowski 'brake-checking' on restarts, and NASCAR told Keselowski to cool it in Sunday's 400….when the two were at it again, in their late-race chase with Jimmie Johnson (who wound up the winner, Keselowski third, and Edwards fifth).
   "It's hard to get in someone's head and know exactly what they were thinking," Keselowski says. "Obviously he was disappointed not to win in his home state; I would be too. Maybe that was his motivation…"
   Restarts in this sport are an art form. Kyle Busch is one of the best. But sometimes – ask Rusty Wallace – NASCAR will blackflag someone on the restart, sometimes even the race leader.
   "For every (restart) strategy as a leader, there's a counter-strategy that will beat it," Keselowski says.
   "For a guy that goes early, you can do this to….
    "For a guy who goes late, you can do this to…
    "For a guy who brake-checks, you can do this to. 
    "It's 'paper/rock/scissors.'"
    However in giving Keselowski that warning at Kansas, Keselowski says that took away one of the three options.
    And Keselowski says race officials sometimes can't see, from the control tower, what actually is going on during those seconds prior to a restart.
   "There's no way they could see and enforce it…but it's not worth the risk," Keselowski says. 
    "What they had actually warned me against doing was exactly what Jimmie did on the last restart. 
    "I think we all wish there was a better understanding of it (the rules for restarting). But we all sympathize with NASCAR and know the box they're in.
    "You have to understand how difficult it is to be up there (in the control tower).  I went up there and watched some races with NASCAR…and I've done it on the spotters' stand. They have a window for the restart zone…and that window is small to the naked eye.
    "It's certainly not an easy call to make.  It's very much a ball-or-strike call."
    And yet it's also very much a call that could be crucial in a championship chase…..


  Curious teammates: Brad Keselowski (L) and Kurt Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Oh I almost forgot. Carl

Oh I almost forgot. Carl wrecked half of the chase drivers, as well as half of the field in the fall Talladega race a few years ago.
Oh and decides to choke Harvick.
Oh wait, he also almost took Dale Jr's hand off by slamming into his car in a nationwide race at Michigan because he slowed up.
He is a PR master on camera...but...

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