Brad Keselowski is no longer leading the Sprint Cup points standings, but he remains confident in his Penske Racing team.
"Don't count us out," he said Sunday.
Keselowski's transformation at the Cup level since crew chief Paul Wolfe took control of the team in 2011 has been remarkable. Lest we forget, Keselowski finished 25th his rookie season. Once Wolfe came on board, Keselowski's learning curve accelerated dramatically.
The Penske Racing driver proved his determination and fight last season following his courageous comeback at Pocono Raceway. (He drove with a broken ankle that would have sidelined most competitors.)
After the first 19 races, Keselowski was 23rd in the points standings. His Pocono victory vaulted the No. 2 team to 18th in points -- and into wild-card contention with five races remaining before the Chase.
But Keselowski wouldn't need the wild card. The team won again two weeks later at Bristol and, with an average finish of 4.8 over the final five races before the Chase, Keselowski leapfrogged nine positions to enter the Chase ninth in the points standings. Although he didn't win in the final 10 races, Keselowski finished an impressive fifth in only his second full season.
With three races remaining, Keselowski's stats this season have well surpassed last year's numbers. His five victories topped all previous seasons combined. Ditto top fives (12), top 10s (21) and laps led (650). What is missing is the lack of DNF's. Not to jinx Keselowski, but he's been running at the finish of every race since the season-opening Daytona 500.
If there has been a weakness in Keselowski's arsenal, it's definitely qualifying. His 32nd-place starting position Sunday was his worst effort of the season. Still, with remarkable patience and perseverance by the entire team, Keselowski salvaged a career-best sixth-place finish. Although it wasn't enough to secure the points lead, even Jimmie Johnson, who now holds a two-point advantage, took notice.
Although his No. 48 team has been title contenders nearly every season since its 2002 debut, Johnson's wise enough to know "anything can happen" in the Chase.
"We've done a very nice job over these seven races to put ourselves in the points lead," Johnson said. "We've had a variety of different races finish with fuel mileage and things like that that have kept us out of Victory Lane and certainly played into their hands. You think of Dover, I think there's another one in there.
"We're ready to race under any conditions. (Keselowski's) a great driver. It's a great team. Next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen. We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer (third in points, 26 from Johnson) is your champion. You never know. You got to go race the race."
Certainly, experience is on Johnson's side. No one can argue with the five championships that Hendrick Motorsports has amassed under the No. 48's banner. But it would be foolish to discount Keselowski's passion and resolve.
"I don't think he's going to crack," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who offered Keselowski his first break in a Nationwide Series car with JR Motorsports. "I think he's going to be hard to beat. I think he will be a tough competitor all the way through. Brad has been waiting on this opportunity all his life, so I don't expect him to crack under the pressure. I think he will be tough."
However, Keselowski has not produced stellar results at the three remaining tracks. He qualified eighth at Texas in the spring and was running in the top five when sidelined with a fuel pickup problem. At Phoenix, Keselowski posted a career-high fifth in March. His average finish is 20.2 at Homestead, site of the season finale.
Still, in the past seven races at intermediate tracks since Penske Racing has corrected its electronic fuel injection issues, Keselowski has amassed two victories and an average finish of 5.7. What Keselowski lacks in experience at the Cup level, the team makes up for in perseverance.
"This team has a tremendous amount of heart," Keselowski said. "I'm proud of them. This championship is going to come down to Homestead. You have to be in a position where you're in shot of it. We have to do what we need to do to be in contention at Homestead. We have Texas coming up, very similar to Chicago. I'm sure it's going to be a duel with the 48 there. We'll keep fighting the good fight.
"I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead. I feel like those are two races that we can race the 48 car heads-up in speed and maybe even a little bit better than them. I'm not quite so sure about Phoenix, but, you know, the execution we have in this team right now is second to none. If we'd have had just a little bit more speed this week and last week, I think we could have been in Victory Lane. Like I say, we've got a couple races coming up where I know we're going to have speed and I'm feeling great."
For the pundits who counted Keselowski out whether it was at Dover, where he won; Talladega, where he survived with a seventh-place showing; or Martinsville, where he battled back to sixth, it would be foolish to underestimate his chances for the championship. Clearly, Johnson won't, either.
Here are 10 other topics to ponder:
Entering the race at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin was a top contender for the win and the Sprint Cup championship. Despite two pit-road speeding penalties, Hamlin passed 93 cars on Sunday to lead the race twice before his electrical system failed on the No. 11 car.
Hamlin entered the weekend 20 points behind then-leader Brad Keselowski. Now the Joe Gibbs Racing driver finds himself 20 points behind fourth-place Kasey Kahne and at a 49-point deficit to Jimmie Johnson. It's unlikely that Hamlin can make a comeback in the final three races, but a series-best five wins (tied with Keselowski) is nothing to get discouraged about. Still, with all the failures this team has endured this year, quality control has to be at the focus for this team in the offseason.
2. Just a bummer
What else can you say about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 21st-place finish? Certainly, the pit strategy -- or lack thereof -- when the other leaders stopped during the 10th caution on Lap 477 proved costly for the No. 88 team, particularly since crew chief Steve Letarte was so insistent on four tires through most of the race. Although this outing wasn't nearly as heartbreaking as running out of gas at Charlotte or pitting for fuel at Pocono and potentially sacrificing the win, after running in the top 10 all day, for Junior Nation it is was simply disappointing.
3. Remember when . . .
Tony Stewart was good at Martinsville? Maybe last year, when he won the race? How could the defending winner and Cup champion fall two laps off the pace and finish 27th because of an ill-handling car?
The only Chase drivers who finished worse than Smoke were Kevin Harvick (32nd), who experienced an engine failure, and Hamlin (33rd), who endured a rash of issues before the master switch broke on his car. Stewart was the Chase's biggest loser on Sunday. He sank three positions in the points to 10th, his lowest standing since Atlanta. Since the Chase began, Stewart's average finish is 14.2 compared to 8.2 during his third title run last year. Maybe it's time to drop some dead weight again?
4. Try, try again
Sources say Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is switching engine suppliers from Earnhardt Childress Racing to Hendrick Engines for 2013. Hendrick Engines already supplies Stewart-Haas Racing, Phoenix Racing, JR Motorsports and Turner Motorsports. Despite a reorganization of management and the No. 42 team, Juan Pablo Montoya was 17th in the points standings after Martinsville last year. He's currently 22nd.
5. Meet the new boss, same as old boss
Gil Martin's role as interim crew chief for Harvick will become more permanent in 2013. Martin said on Sunday, "I'll be ready to get this year over and start from scratch next year."
Harvick, who was considered a title contender entering 2012 but dropped to 11th in the points standings after an engine failure on Sunday, likely echoes Martin's sentiments. Harvick's winless streak is at 43 and counting.
6. Speaking of Kevin Harvick . . .
Kurt Busch was running fifth when Harvick punted his No. 78 car on Lap 229 on Sunday. Still, Busch posted a 15th-place finish -- his best showing since joining Furniture Row Racing three events ago.
"As was the case in Kansas last week, our performance today was better than the finish," Busch said. "We were running in the top five when I got hit and spun out. That knocked us back in track position, and we were fighting to get back on the lead lap. This is our third race together, and I am happy with the progress. The potential is there and we're getting closer each week. The pit stops were phenomenal, and they played a big role in getting us to the front."
7. Speaking of Furniture Row . . .
The addition of a third car at Stewart-Haas Racing next season means that their development pit crew, which has been assisting FRR, will work with Ryan Newman next season. Furniture Row has hired a new pit crew coach and is recruiting players for a new pit crew to be based out of Pit Instruction & Training out of Mooresville, N.C.
8. A little bit of luck . . .
Would go a long way with AJ Allmendinger's comeback. Although 'Dinger started 26th on Sunday, he was up to 13th by the fourth caution on Lap 150. On the track, Allmendinger was passing cars representing teams with triple the budget of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing ride. He was running 11th when his car started going away, but the true damage occurred after the ninth restart on Lap 446 when Aric Almirola plowed into the back of Allmendinger's car. Allmendinger quickly lost ground and was forced to pit with a broken bumper bar. He dropped two laps during the repairs but kept a cool head in the process. Although Allmendinger finished 28th, it was not indicative of the team's potential. Allmendinger will drive again for the team at Texas. While Regan Smith will then finish out the year with Phoenix Racing at Phoenix and Homestead, don't be surprised if Allmendinger isn't offered the seat in 2013.
9. Speaking of Regan Smith . . .
It was great to see the driver locked into a solid Nationwide Series ride with JR Motorsports next season, one he will debut in the season finale at Homestead. Whether he has one-full time teammate or two depends entirely on sponsorship. JRM GM Kelley Earnhardt-Miller says the organization would like to retain Cole Whitt, but the 21-year-old driver who is currently seventh in the Nationwide Series points standings "is not locked in" for next season. However, her team is "working real hard to put sponsor around him."
Funding will determine whether Whitt shares a partial season with Dale Earnhardt Jr. or he just runs for the title in the No. 7 Chevrolet.
Earnhardt-Miller added: "Right now even the car and crew chiefs are up in the air because we don't exactly know what car numbers we're going to have. If we're a two-car team, it will be the 5 and 88 in terms of Dale running the 88 (in) races and Cole running the balance of those. If we get funding for Cole full time it will be the (Nos.) 5 and the 7 and Dale will run the 88. Regan's crew chief at Homestead, we haven't identified yet."
10. Ample audition
At the start of the season, Almirola had a one-year contract to prove he was the best candidate for the No. 43 ride. While Richard Petty Motorsports tested the waters, the company was unable to secure a driver comparable to the one already in the seat. Team sources told FOXSports.com on Sunday that Almirola is expected to return with the team next year. Almirola has displayed competitive moments, such as his season-high fourth-place finish on Sunday at Martinsville. It's clear that veteran crew chief Todd Parrott has been a guiding influence on the 28-year-old driver since he took over the No. 43 team before the Chase.