SPARTA, Ky. — Brad Keselowski was the only driver at Kentucky Speedway to compete in all three NASCAR races.
Late on a hot Saturday night in the Bluegrass countryside, he also was the only one to pick up a third Sprint Cup win of the season.
“I wanted all three, but sometimes that ain’t meant to happen,” a happy Keselowski said about his starts in the Truck, Nationwide and Cup races at the 1.5-mile oval. “But second, seventh and a first ain’t bad at all.”
It sure isn’t.
Now Keselowski is elbowing his way into the season-ending Chase picture and making more than a couple of other drivers nervous about their own chances.
As the Cup series builds to its climactic stretch run, Keselowski, who also won at Bristol and Talladega and is now 10th in the standings, is making a lot of people take notice.
Kyle Busch stands 12th with the top 12 through the first 26 races making the Chase “playoffs.” He realizes that 10th-place finishes — like he had at Kentucky — might not be good enough.
“We’re still within reach and everything,” he said in the din of the postrace bustle, before adding, “We’re certainly not running the way we need to be running.”
Kasey Kahne, who used a late rally to close to second in Kentucky, climbed into the final wild-card position at 14th.
“A top-five (finish) is good, but it’s probably not going to get us in the Chase,” he said. “We need to win a race or two more to make the Chase.”
Kahne rallied from a lap down to squeeze Keselowski’s final advantage to 4.399 seconds. Kahne had finished higher than 19th just once in the season’s first six races. Crashes at Pocono and Michigan put a damper on his hopes before he started picking off cars in the final few laps on the bumpy track in Kentucky.
“We’ve got to keep working on it and got to be a little stronger throughout,” he said. “But my car was fast. The longer the run went, the better we seemed to get.”
Because Carl Edwards, 11th in the standings, and 13th-place Paul Menard have yet to win, Kahne has an advantage thanks to his win at Charlotte.
“It’s time for us to get it in gear,” Edwards said. “I am real frustrated. (Crew chief) Bob (Osborne) is real frustrated. I know we can do this.”
Heading into this weekend’s Cup race at Daytona, Matt Kenseth is first in the standings, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Keselowski.
While the Chase sublots were accumulating, Keselowski was adding to an extraordinary year. In three of his first seven starts, he finished near the bottom. He also had not cracked the top 10 in his four previous starts before coming to Kentucky.
Keselowski conceded that his team had “reliability issues” early in the year.
But he has had his Penske Dodge in contention in almost all the rest of the 17 races so far. With just nine races left before the Chase, the 28-year-old Michigan native is just confident enough to believe he can create even more havoc.
“The only thing that means anything is who’s in the top 10 and who has the most wins when the Chase gets going,” he said. “That is the only thing that matters.”
Crew chief Paul Wolfe pulled a Houdini move during Friday’s practice. Keselowski collided with Juan Pablo Montoya on the very first lap of warmups, wrecking his best car. Wolfe and his crew grabbed last year’s car and, in an hour’s time in 100-degree heat, transformed it into the vehicle that dominated the final 60 laps.
“Any time people think we’re down and out, (we seem) to be able to get up to another level,” Wolfe said.
While everybody else, it seems, is anxiously glancing at the remaining races and counting in their heads what they need to do to get into or remain in contention for the big money at the end of the season, the easy-going Keselowski continues to be oblivious to the pressure.
“I’m looking forward,” he said. “Not looking back. If you’re worried about being 10th in points, then you’re looking back.”
He’s not the only driver with designs on stealing the biggest prize.
Earnhardt hadn’t won a race in 143 starts dating to 2008 before winning at Michigan two weeks ago. After placing fourth at Kentucky, he said he’s not so willing to wait for another trip to Victory Lane.
“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said, laughing.