2012 Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski back on the contender map

03/12/2014 12:21 PM

03/12/2014 12:22 PM

Brad Keselowski doesn’t have to explain 2013 anymore.

He has a win, and in Sprint Cup racing this year, that counts more than anything.

It puts him in the new version of the Chase (pretty much, barring the unusual), which means he doesn’t have to spend any more time answering questions about how he didn’t make the Chase last year as the defending series champion. It was an awkward topic.

But who cares now? It’s not an issue anymore.

Sunday’s victory at Las Vegas put Keselowski back on the contender map.

He and his No. 2 Ford team spent last year making a transition to a new manufacturer after Dodge left the series following his championship. His performance wasn’t awful. It just wasn’t championship-defending material.

Keselowski knew it. He had the leeway that a title under the belt provides.

But he tinkers, he experiments, he thinks. Looking for answers anywhere he could think of, it almost became a strain on the team.

“That’s just Brad’s style. That’s why we love him,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “I mean, he’s dedicated. He wants to be the best out there, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to do that. Sometimes it can wear you down — there’s no doubt about that. And like I said, he was on me hard over the off-season. But I know that he’s just passionate about the sport and being the best.

“I think this is probably a better situation than a guy that doesn’t show up at the shop and doesn’t understand what’s going on. So I’m willing to deal with that sometimes.”

For Keselowski, the embarrassment of missing the Chase last year led him to rationalize. Everyone wants to win championships year after year after year, like Jimmie Johnson. But Keselowski thought about Tony Stewart, who won titles in 2002, ’05 and ’11.

“If you look at that, there’s three, five, six years or whatever in between those,” he said. “And when you look at those championships, I think he showcases how sometimes things work in cycles. The sports world works in cycles. And we didn’t have the year we wanted to have last year. I’m not afraid to admit that, and I’m definitely not going to hide from it.

“But we also have to be realists and know that a lot of things have to come together to win. The team has to be perfect, I have to be perfect, and a little bit of racing luck has to go your way. I don’t think we hit either one of those three last year.”

Can’t say that about this year.

Series updates

Sprint Cup

Series leader: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is atop the points standings for a third consecutive week, the first time in his career he’s been at the top three straight weeks.

Slow-starting SHR: The new-look Stewart-Haas Racing, which added Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, has an average standing of 25.5 in points. Harvick is 14th, Tony Stewart is 27th, Busch is 28th and Danica Patrick is 33rd.

Nationwide

Hot streak: Trevor Bayne has five consecutive top-10 finishes, including the last two races last year. He has been third, seventh and eighth this year.

Blaney ride: Ryan Blaney is in the No. 22 for Penske for the first time since winning in it last year at Kentucky. At Bristol, he has never been outside the top 10 in any series.

NHRA

Force-ful start: John Force is the points leader in Funny Car after coming out with a victory at Pomona. Last year, he won his 16th title.

Formula One

TV plan: The NBC networks begin their coverage with the Australian Grand Prix just after midnight Saturday. It’s the first of 19 Formula One races scheduled to be broadcast by NBC, NBCSN and CNBC.

33 Percent of the time that Kyle Busch has won in a NASCAR national series race at Bristol. In 45 starts, he has 15 wins — five in Sprint Cup, six in Nationwide, four in the truck series.

Quotable

“It’s like going from the bottom of the mountain and climbing and climbing and not getting anywhere. You fight and fight and fight, and at the end of the day, you’re right where you were when you had your problem.” — Tony Stewart, on trying to recover from laps down at Bristol

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