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NASCAR Cup Series

Will Bubble Pop on Logano, Keselowski?

By Jerry Bonkowski – Joey Logano’s win Sunday at Michigan was rather ironic.

While it boosted Logano into contention to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it didn’t exactly do much for the fate of teammate and defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

Sure, the numbers heading into Saturday night’s race at Bristol show Keselowski in eighth place in the standings and Logano in 13th, just seven points out of 12th and ever so close to capturing one of two wild-card berths for the Chase.

But here’s where the irony comes in: With Saturday night’s race at Bristol, next weekend at Atlanta and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond in two weeks, Logano may wind up making the 10-race playoffs and the defending champ may not.

It’s a matter of numbers.

Keselowski is just four points out of 10th position. If he has one bad race in the remaining three – or worse, two bad races in the next three – it’s likely he’ll fall out of the top-10.

End of making the Chase. End of defending last year’s championship.

If that were to happen, Keselowski would become at least the third driver in recent memory who either won a championship or came agonizingly close to doing so one year, and failed to make the Chase the following season.

Think about it: Tony Stewart won his second Cup crown in 2005, only to miss the Chase in 2006 by just over a dozen points.

Then there was Carl Edwards, who tied with Stewart for the Cup championship in 2011, only to lose it on a tie-breaker. Rather than come back even stronger and more motivated in 2012, Edwards missed the Chase.

Keselowski isn’t far from suffering the same fate that Stewart’s and Edwards did.

And in another twist of irony, Logano could still overtake his teammate and make the Chase – while Keselowski doesn’t – because of one simple thing.

Wins — or lack thereof, in the case of Keselowski.

Logano earned his first win of the 2013 Cup season at Michigan, while Keselowski still has not visited victory lane thus far in NASCAR’s premier series this season.

That’s something I just don’t get. The Michigan native looked extremely strong in the first part of the season, with either a third- or fourth-place finish in each of the first four races, only to ride a roller coaster of performance from that point on.

You would think that surely the defending Cup champ would have at least a win or two by now. But Keselowski hasn’t. What’s more, he has just one runner-up finish this season, two weeks ago at Watkins Glen.

By contrast, at this time last year, Keselowski already had three wins and would earn two more during the Chase and en route to his and team owner Roger Penske’s first respective Sprint Cup  championships.

Of the three remaining tracks before the Chase starts, Keselowski has had the best success at Bristol, with two wins and another top-five in seven starts at the fabled short track.

At Atlanta, he has one top-five and another top-10 in four Cup starts. And at Richmond, he has just two top-10s in eight starts.

That’s why Saturday night’s race is so important for both teammates. Logano said after Sunday’s win that his team realistically needs top-10 finishes in at least two of the last three races to hopefully secure a Chase berth (and that still may not be enough).

Unfortunately for Logano, he’s going to have to elevate his game like he never has if he hopes to finally make his first Chase. At Bristol, he has just one top-10 in nine career starts. Atlanta is worse: his best finish in six starts to date has been 18th, achieved this spring there.

And then there’s Richmond, where Logano has a pair of top-fives in nine career Cup starts.

I’m sure that while it’s an exciting time around Penske Racing, knowing that one and possibly both of its Sprint Cup drivers are on the either side of the cusp to make the Chase.

There’s a lot of hard work still left to do to assure Keselowski and Logano both make the Chase – because one twist or turn of fate could ultimately result in one, if not both, failing to make the playoffs.

Yes, Penske Racing is riding the Chase bubble perhaps as much as any other team. The question is whether or not that bubble doesn’t ultimately burst for both of its drivers in the next three races.

 

EMAIL JERRY AT jerrybonkowski@gmail.com

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