Bill Fleischman: In homestretch, Keselowski confident he can win Chase

Posted: November 09, 2012

OK, YOU'RE Brad Keselowski. With two races remaining in the Chase, you're only seven points behind the leader. Normally, the leader could be vulnerable.

Wait, oh, no! The leader is Jimmie Johnson, winner of five consecutive championships until he was dethroned last year by Tony Stewart.

Johnson has won the two previous Chase races, and he's never lost a championship when leading before the season's final two races. How does this sit with Keselowski?

"If you look at the last two races, if neither of [our] two teams catches a good or bad break and we're just even, I feel like we can outperform them and win the championship," he said on a Tuesday conference all. "We've caught a couple bad breaks that I'm not real happy about, with cautions and so forth, that have kind of compromised our lead, but I feel confident in our performance that we'll be able to go out there and regain the points lead and make a run for this championship.

"If you review the situation at Texas [last Sunday], there were essentially four times where I felt like we had control of the finish of the race, and a yellow or some unfortunate circumstance kind of took that back from us, and eventually that fifth bad break caught up to us there at the end."

In only his second Chase appearance, Keselowski, 28, led 5 of the first 6 weeks. The Michigan native believes a certain mental toughness is necessary to withstand the Chase pressure, as he proved at Texas, when he recovered from sliding his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge through his pit stall with about 60 laps to go.

"Of all the spots or roles in professional sports that a race car driver is most similar to, I would put it right there with an NFL quarterback," he said. "There's a certain level of phenomenal talent you must have to be able to throw a ball down the field, but a large part of it is decision-making. Elite athletes that can run around and throw the best pass, it takes more than that. You have to be a great decision-maker and a great leader, and that's why you see certain guys in football that are successful, and I feel that same way now."

Johnson has won an astounding 22 of the 88 Chase races he's been in. His total doubles that of the next closest driver, Tony Stewart (11). An admiring Ricky Craven, a former racer who's now an ESPN analyst, said, watching Johnson "is like watching Ted Williams hit .400."

More bad news for Keselowski: Johnson's four wins at Phoenix are the most of any driver.

While Keselowski's task is daunting, in the last two Chases, second-place drivers have overtaken the leader in the final race: Johnson did it with Denny Hamlin 2 years ago, and Stewart edged Carl Edwards last year.

Johnson and Keselowski raced hard at Texas, even making high-speed contact in their cars on the closing laps, but they appear to have high regard for each other.

"I have a lot of respect for that No. 2 team," Johnson said. "Those guys are doing a great job. All Chase long, you can't count those guys out. They are keeping us honest and pressuring us hard."

Looking ahead to the final two races, Johnson said, "I expect a lot of hard racing."

Keselowski's team, led by crew chief Paul Wolfe, is the only Dodge entry in the Chase.

Fans advising Pocono

Pocono Raceway is forming a 20-member Fan Council to assist the track's staff in improving the overall fan experience.

The council will complete surveys, meet quarterly (either in person or through conference calls) and assist with promotional events. Those interested in applying for the council should visit www.poconoraceway.com/fancouncil. Applications are due by Dec. 21. Applicants must be 18 or older.

Diversity racer truckin'

Kyle Larson's K & N Pro Series East championship marks the first NASCAR touring championship for Rev Racing and NASCAR's Drive For Diversity. Larson, a development driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, will run the No. 4 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet in the Camping World Truck Series races at Phoenix and Homestead, Fla.

"I'm really thankful for the opportunity," said Larson, 20. "Being half Japanese, I got a chance to run with Rev Racing with the NASCAR Diversity program, and they have really good equipment and a lot of experienced crew chiefs and car chiefs and members on the team.

This week's race

AdvoCare 500

Phoenix International Raceway

Avondale, Ariz.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Race course: 1-mile oval

Race distance: 312 laps/500 kilometers

Race forecast: sunny, mid-60s

Last year's winner: Kasey Kahne

Last year's pole winner: Matt Kenseth, 137.101 mph

Track qualifying record: Carl Edwards, 137.279 mph (February 2011)

Track facts: In winning last year's race, Kahne led only the final 14 laps. Carl Edwards was second, Tony Stewart was third. Edwards took a three-point Chase lead over Stewart into the season finale . . . Denny Hamlin won the spring race at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick was second. Mark Martin won the pole (136.815 mph) . . . Non-Chaser Joey Logano has four top-10 finishes in the Chase races . . . Kurt Busch's 10-year streak of winning at least one race is in jeopardy . . . With two Nationwide races to go, Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the points lead. Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide titlist, holds the current tiebreaker: six wins to Sadler's four . . . Brian Vickers will race full time for Joe Gibbs Racing in next year's Nationwide Series. In eight Sprint Cup starts this year for Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers has two top-five finishes and two top 10s.

Wins: Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, 5 each; Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth, 3 each; Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, 2 each; Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, 1 each.

Up next: Ford 400, Nov. 18, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead, Fla., 3 p.m.; TV: ESPN; last year's winner: Tony Stewart.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP CHASE

STANDINGS

1. Jimmie Johnson 2339

2. Brad Keselowski 2332

3. Clint Bowyer 2303

4. Kasey Kahne 2281

5. Matt Kenseth 2267

6. Jeff Gordon 2267

7. Denny Hamlin 2266

8. Tony Stewart 2259

9. Martin Truex Jr. 2259

10. Greg Biffle 2256

11. Kevin Harvick 2238

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2188

SCHEDULE

Sept. 16: Chicagoland (winner: Brad Keselowski)

Sept. 23: New Hampshire M.S. (Denny Hamlin)

Sept. 30: Dover Int'l Speedway (Brad Keselowski)

Oct. 7: Talladega Superspeedway (Matt Kenseth)

Oct. 13: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Clint Bowyer)

Oct. 21: Kansas Speedway (Matt Kenseth)

Oct. 28: Martinsville Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)

Nov. 4: Texas Motor Speedway (Jimmie Johnson)

Nov. 11: Phoenix Int'l Raceway (2 p.m., ESPN)

Nov. 18: Homestead-Miami Speedway (2 p.m., ESPN)

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Contact Bill Fleischman at fleiscb@phillynews.com.

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