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.



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NASCAR Cup Series

POWER RANKINGS: The Fast Fifteen

By Matt Weaver – Charlotte, NC: Kasey Kahne scored a much-needed victory on Sunday at Pocono but Jimmie Johnson battled back to score a top-15 after a mid-race accident to take the top spot in the inaugural Popular Speed NASCAR Fast Fifteen Power Rankings.

1. Jimmie Johnson

A blown right front tire relegated championship leader Jimmie Johnson to 13th in the final rundown at Pocono. It’s most impressive that the No. 48 team was able to repair the car without losing a lap but the flipside is that Johnson failed to win another race in which he’s dominated — something that could bite him in the Chase for the Championship.

2. Kasey Kahne

His second victory of the season provides a near certainty that he will be in the Chase. It’s also a possible preview for the remainder of the season as some of his favorite tracks like Bristol, Atlanta and Charlotte remaining on the schedule.

3. Ryan Newman

The Rocket followed up his Brickyard 400 breakthrough with a fourth-place at Pocono. He’s now just nine points behind Martin Truex Jr. who currently occupies the second wild card spot.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In what’s become a typical day for NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. lingered near the front all day, scored a top-five but wasn’t quite able to pick up the victory that his enthusiastic fan base continues to demand.

5. Tony Stewart

It’s cliché but Tony Stewart really does perform at his best during the summer months. That trend has continued this year as he’s notched seven top-10s in his last 10 races. Unfortunately a broken right leg will end that momentum and likely his championship hopes as the driver appears poised to miss Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International.

6. Clint Bowyer

Pocono has never been kind to Clint Bowyer over the years with the Michael Waltrip Racing driver nearly matching his career average (15.06) with a 14th-place on Sunday. It doesn’t take away from his fantastic consistent season thus far and he’s due for victory lane with some of his better tracks ahead on the schedule.

7. Brad Keselowski

His Nationwide Series victory at Iowa, combined with a sixth-place at Pocono has the defending Sprint Cup champion back in the spotlight and has revived his championship hopes.

8. Jeff Gordon

Sunday provided mixed results for Jeff Gordon. On one hand, he let a much-needed win slip away on the final restart at Pocono but he has continued to reel off top-10s — five over his last six races and has fought his way back up to ninth in the championship standings.

9. Matt Kenseth

Sunday was just one of those days for the 2003 Cup Series champion, who was involved in two accidents and was caught speeding on pit road. It’s best to get those out of the way before the Chase.

10. Kurt Busch

The 2004 Sprint Cup champion continues to battle his way back towards the top-10 in the Furniture Row car but may have to turn some of these top-fives into victories over the next few weeks in order to make the Chase. You can’t help but wonder where Busch would be if not for mishaps at Loudon and Indianapolis.

11. Sam Hornish Jr.

If not for his Sprint Cup teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano winning two of the past three Nationwide Series events, Sam Hornish would be sitting at three wins and possibly leading the standings. Nevertheless, a second-place run at Iowa was important as it moved him into a second-place tie with Regan Smith with just 14 races remaining.

12. Kyle Busch

The younger Busch just couldn’t maintain track position on Sunday at Pocono and was bitten several times by the wrong strategy calls on pit road. It happens.

13. Kevin Harvick

Harvick made the most of a ‘meh’ day at Pocono, finishing 17th and on the lead lap. Better days lie ahead as his final Chase with RCR approaches.

14. Greg Biffle

The Biff scored a top-10 on a day where Roush-Fenway engines were a little off the pace. Biffle continues to make the most of his equipment, especially on days where it’s not capable of winning, which is one of the more underrated facets of his game.

15. Carl Edwards

See Greg Biffle. His teammate, Carl Edwards made the most of an off-day for Roush-Fenway and finished 11th.

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