MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Brad Keselowski has his work cut out for him Sunday if he is to stay in the hunt for the Sprint Cup Series championship.
So, what else is new?
It seems ever since the Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway six weeks ago, Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing team have faced numerous obstacles and always seem to be on the verge of being dismissed as a title contender.
Yet, with four races left, including the Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Keselowski maintains a seven-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson and a 20-point lead over Denny Hamlin, his nearest competitors.
The stakes already were high for Keselowski this weekend at a track where Johnson and Hamlin own a combined 10 victories. Keselowski’s best finish in five starts was ninth during the spring.
They got even higher Friday when Keselowski qualified 32nd-fastest – 31 spots behind pole-winner Johnson. Hamlin will start fifth.
“I can tell you I don’t enjoy qualifying like crap. That’s not what I come to the race track to do but it’s been the course as of late,” Keselowski said.
“You take solace in the fact that the part that matters, the actual racing, my team has done a great job preparing excellent cars and executing on all levels. You try to focus on what you have that’s going right and that’s what we have that’s going right.”
That certainly is true.
During the past three races, Keselowski has started 22nd at Talladega, Ala., 20th at Charlotte and 25th at Kansas. He has finished seventh, 11th and eighth in those races and actually gained two points on Johnson while maintaining the series lead.
Track position is considered key at Martinsville’s tough short track and starting near the back opens a driver to the possibility of getting lapped early.
Keselowski remained confident he and crew chief Paul Wolfe again would devise a strategy to get them out of a jam.
“I thought last weekend (at Kansas) was harder to pass than this weekend will be, to be honest. And that’s not to say it’s going to be easy here at Martinsville, but there is quite a few more variables that I think work to your favor with strategies and so forth,” Keselowski said.
“Obviously it’s a very, very long race with 500 laps around here. There are a lot of tools in our tool chest to help us recover from that.”
One of those tools might be a new car.
“We have a brand-new Dodge this weekend and I’m excited about its potential,” Wolfe said. “We were able to test at Rockingham and came away very pleased.
“We really haven’t gotten the finishes we deserve there recently. If you keep running in the top five or the top 10, good things will happen. Hopefully, that is the case this weekend.”
Hamlin isn’t ready to write off Keselowski’s chances Sunday in part because Hamlin himself has qualified poorly at Martinsville and managed good finishes.
During 2007, Hamlin started 30th in the fall race and finished sixth. In the 2010 spring race, Hamlin started 19th and won.
“Ultimately, at the start of races when you start getting into each other, things happen a little bit worse back there because of the chain reaction. It takes a little bit longer to get there,” Hamlin said.
“That is going to be a challenge. But we drove from the back to the front here before. If you have a good car, and you don’t get in trouble, it takes your second or third run, but you’ll find yourself in the top five.”
That’s a game plan Keselowski would like to replicate.
“We’ve been fortunate to win two races and be in contention for others. Even when we don’t win, we seem to be able to find a way to not have a disaster out of it,” he said.
“I’m proud of my team for that.”