CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Denny Hamlin has conceded his championship chances, and Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are fading fast.
So what’s stopping Jimmie Johnson from cruising to a sixth NASCAR championship?
Johnson’s win last weekend at Martinsville pushed him into the points lead with three races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. His margin is just two points over Keselowski, who has given no indication he’s not going to fight all the way to the Nov. 18 season finale.
“We like our role is in this Chase,” Keselowski said. “While we aren’t being overlooked by any means, there are many who think that we are still too young of a team to seriously challenge the 48 team. We like it that way. In reality, we are a very good race team that is primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.”
The next stop is Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Johnson has a statistical edge. The five-time champion won at Texas in 2007 and has 13 top-10 finishes in 18 career starts.
Keselowski has had some challenges there, with a best finish of 14th in eight career starts. He’s led only 34 laps, too. But he had a good car there in April’s long fuel-mileage race and has no reason to believe Penske Racing isn’t sending him back with another strong No. 2 Dodge.
“We had an awesome car in April at Texas, probably the best car I’ve ever had there,” he said. “But fuel issues kept us from challenging for the win. This weekend, I’m expecting to challenge for the win.”
It’s not a must-win situation, largely because Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe salvaged last weekend at Martinsville.
A poor qualifying effort put him 32nd on the starting grid, with Johnson on the pole. Still, Keselowski found himself in position for a solid finish when the caution waved 23 laps from the finish. He was sixth, with 18 cars on the lead lap, and unsure how strategy might play out.
Keselowski asked Wolfe if he could make the call whether or not to pit instead of leaving the decision to the crew chief.
Wolfe deferred to the driver, who at the last second stayed out as 16 cars headed for pit road. It allowed Keselowski to lead a lap, picking up a bonus point for doing so, and hang on for a sixth-place finish.
Wolfe said he gives his opinion in those situations, but trusts the driver to make the correct call.
“Brad studies the sport, he understands what’s going on and I think there are only a few guys in the garage that do that,” Wolfe said. “I think if you didn’t have a guy that understood what was going on with his race car, I think those calls could be a lot more risky. He understands what’s going on.”
It helped Wolfe keep the No. 2 team within its goal, which was to remain 10 points within Johnson after Martinsville.
“I don’t think we’re hanging around,” Wolfe said. “I think we’ve shown growth in this team and we’ve shown improvement from the beginning of the season. We were lacking speed earlier in the season. We were able to run well, get good finishes and win some races, but we didn’t have dominant racecars. We continued to work on our stuff and as we got closer to the Chase and we’ve been in the Chase, there have been tracks where we’ve been dominant or as good as anybody here.”
Keselowski’s been good this season at 1.5-mile superspeedways, which could give him an edge in two of the final three races. Texas and Homestead are intermediate tracks, with 1-mile Phoenix sandwiched in between.
“I feel like our cars have been really strong at … the high fall-off, mile-and-a-halves where the pace drops significantly [during a fuel run],” Keselowski said. “That’s been our strong suit and I think that we can keep that going. I’m really confident in that,” Keselowski said. “Phoenix, I’m not so sure about. We know that we’ve got a great shot at beating them heads-up at two of those three races.”