Brad Keselowski has done a lot of talking the talk and walking the walk the last few weeks. The first should make everyone take notice, while the latter puts him in NASCAR Cup Series championship contention.
Keselowski won his fourth race of the season over the weekend at Richmond Raceway, just days after calling his shot. During media availability previewing the Federated Auto Parts 400, Keselowski said he expected to lead a lot of laps and potentially win the race.
The win not only locks Keselowski into the second round of the postseason, but gives him 35 playoff points to fall back on should he need them. He continues to be the only driver relatively close to Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin in that category.
But the confidence Keselowski has had goes back even further.
Before the postseason began, Keselowski gathered his No. 2 team and told them someone would hold the Bill France Cup at the end of the year, so “why not us?” That followed a comment he made that was lost in the excitement of setting the 16-driver playoff grid after Daytona.
Said Keselowski that night, “It’s good to be in a good spot for the playoffs.”
Now two races in, Keselowski and crew chief Jeremy Bullins have a win under their belt and are already looking ahead to Phoenix. Should they get there, the car that is now 2-for-2 in dominating wins at Loudon and Richmond will be their bullet for the title fight.
While the first round is not even over, who wants to bet against this group right now? This is a driver who is more outspoken and confident than in recent memory.
“I like the format,” said Keselowski. “I like the tracks, how they line up. I think they fit me personally really well, and I think they fit this team really well. The team is really coming together and continues to click, and we’ll continue to build new knowledge together that we’re applying in a great manner.
“I just feel like things are coming together. I know that’s probably hard to make much out of, but it takes so many little pieces to come together to win and to be great. I’ve run really good here on the Cup level for probably the last eight to 10 years, but I’ve had a couple of seasons that were great, and the difference between good to great is just all the tiny little things and the details. And I feel like a lot of those details are going our way.”
Of his eight previous playoff appearances – six of which have been in the elimination era – just once has Keselowski made the championship round (2017). In 2016, ’18, and ’19, elimination came in the Round of 12.
The Round of 12 this year has many drivers feeling anxious. After Las Vegas, there are two potential wild card races with Talladega and the Charlotte road course. Keselowski has three wins in Vegas and five at Talladega.
Harvick and Hamlin remain championship favorites with their buckets of wins, yet Keselowski has been just as consistent. Keselowski continues to have the second-most top-10 finishes behind Harvick, and his 830 laps led are just behind Hamlin’s 835. Harvick leads the series with 1,190 led.
One month before the season started, Roger Penske swapped all three teams around. Keselowski said he had no expectations about working with a new team and wanted to keep an open mind about how it would all work out. He and Bullins have four wins, whereas Bullins and this team had won three races in the last three years with Ryan Blaney.
“I think I’ve always looked at the three drivers at Team Penske, and I feel like from a talent perspective, they’re all very equal,” said Bullins. “I think they all have a boatload of talent. They all have maybe tracks that they’re better at than others to each other, but really the difference in the three of them is just their experience levels, and Brad is obviously the most experienced. And even when we were working with Ryan – I’ve used this term a lot – that we tried to leverage Brad’s experience. We tried to use his comments about what racetracks were going to do from practice to the race and what he expected to happen. We used that information when we were working with Ryan.
“So working with (Keselowski) firsthand, we’re just closer to the source, and we’ve been trying to leverage that, and we’ve been trying to use his experience and the things that he’s learned over time and the course of his career to make our cars better, make our setups better and help us make better decisions. I think when you’re put in that position, we felt like that was the best approach to it, and obviously, we’re happy with the success. We need to keep winning races and try to win this championship.”
Phoenix is a 750-horsepower race. Keselowski has been one of the strongest drivers with the 750 package this season, and he’s glad considering how many there are in the playoffs. Yet, Keselowski is trying not to get ahead of himself, although his confidence is clear about that race too.
“We’ve got to get there,” said Keselowski. “The last two years I haven’t made it all the way, so we’ve got to get all the way there, but if we can get to Phoenix, we’re going to be really good.”