Brant James
Monday August 8th, 2011

It was a snapshot of what Brad Keselowski can be and what Kurt Busch still cannot.

His ankle broken in a crash during a testing session Wedneday at Road Atlanta and lucky, he said, to "be alive" after hurtling into a barrier at 155 mph, Keselowski hauled himself from the No. 2 Dodge in Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, up onto the door for a thrust of fists into the air, then lowered himself down to say and do absolutely every right thing.

Keselowski's second victory of the season had propelled him three spots to 18th in the Sprint Cup points standings and put him in at least temporarily possession of one of two wild-card berths with five races remaining until the Chase for the Championship. Winning days after suffering the injury, driving a day after ceding his Nationwide car to Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. at Newton, Iowa, Keselowski could have been easily led into self-aggrandizement. But he thanked his crew chief, he thanked the guys, he mentioned the 31 American Special Operations troops killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan this week. They all do that, certainly, but in this crucible moment of career-defining, the quotable 27-year-old perhaps transcended into the type of character that the sport and its fans want and in these difficult times, perhaps, need.

The same, despite noble efforts too often self-defeated, cannot be said for Busch, who strode into Victory Lane, certainly, with the best of intentions, to congratulate his teammate. Busch, who since his tenure with Roush Fenway -- with whom he won the 2004 series title -- has seemingly ached to be regarded as a team player and a leader, came off stiff, scripted. Unfair perhaps, but that's Busch's lot. It was his ill fortune, again, to have to followed a genuinely impressive display by Keselowski, especially after Busch had spent the previous minutes in a televised spat with Jimmie Johnson about their late-race tussling in which both blamed the other for improper racing etiquette. Both former champions declared their long-standing hostilities freshly stoked, but Johnson won the post-race television interview and later reportedly dubbed Busch a "crybaby," although Busch later asserted "this is a day that needs to be documented as Keselowski's win and not the feud between Busch and Jimmie."

There he is trying again.

1. Tony Stewart made lemonade. Stewart, a two-time series champion, began the seven-race transition to the Chase for the Championship facing venues where he had won a combined 17 times in Sprint Cup competition. That was a heartening prospect has he fluctuated between 10th place - and a guaranteed playoff spot - and 11th, where a victory would likely be needed to push him through. He finished sixth at Indianapolis and tucked into the ninth position in driver standings, but a tires failure at Pocono dropped him to as low as 33rd and back into peril on Sunday.

Stewart surrendered the 16th spot on Lap 93 when a flat left-front tire forced him to pit under green, but he rallied, finishing 11th to retain ninth in the driver standings. "We had the bad luck of the tire there and came from the back. All the spots we got, we earned them today," he said.

2. And so did Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has slowly given ground since losing the third slot in the driver standings six races ago, falling to 10th before Sunday. Strong all afternoon, he seemed in position for a bountiful points day as he was fifth at the rain delay, but a hung lug nut on a pit stop sunk him to 15th in the running order. He drove back to ninth, however, to hold 10th, the final automatic transfer spot into the Chase. "I'd rather be second or first or third, whatever, but I'm good with how things are working out," he said.

3. Teammates are teammates ... until they're not. Denny Hamlin, who led 65 of the first 101 laps, dutifully allowed teammate Kyle Busch to pass for the lead after being instructed to do so on Lap 82 by Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch, whose No. 18 Toyota was superior at the end of long runs, had slowly wound in the No. 11 Toyota, and had been attempting to make a pass for several laps, so the request seemed reasonable. But Hamlin thought it reasonable Busch relinquish the front once bonus points were secured, but Busch was in the process of driving off into the distance and elected to continue. Busch eventually finished second, Hamlin 15th, retaining 11th place and the final wild card.

4. David Ragan's wild-card chances take hit. David Ragan entered Sunday a race-winner and 16th in points. He was formerly in possession of one of two wild-card berths, but Paul Menard's win at Indianapolis last week snatched away his ticket to the playoffs by virtue of a better points position. A Lap 20 collision with the wall on Sunday however, caused heavy rear-end damage to the No. 6 Ford and might have a greater impact on his chances of qualifying for his first Chase for the Championship. The crash dropped Ragan, who won the Daytona summer race to become wild-card eligible, to 19th in points. He now needs another win or five spots and 62 points to unseat Hamlin.

"Trying to make this Chase, we need as many points as we can," he said. "I've said all along we need to be in that top 12 or 13, or get a second win, so there's still a lot of racing left. There is going to be some bad luck for some of these other guys we're racing for it. You don't want to give up anything and we're going to give up some points today, so that means we've got to go and be extra aggressive these next few races."

5. Joey Logano nearly made his (exclamation) point. The 21-year-old former phenom became embroiled in midsummer free-agency speculation as Carl Edwards reportedly mulled a possible switch to Joe Gibbs Racing, where it was surmised he could replace Logano in the No. 20 Toyota. Even though Logano said he'd never had an actual conversation with team officials about losing his job, he admitted the conjecture was worrisome. Logano, who has one win in 96 Cup starts, none in his last 76 since replacing Stewart in 2009, had responded like a driver attempting to keep his job, with two poles, two top-5s and three top-10s the last six weeks. He continued to do so even after Edwards and Roush Fenway announced a multiyear extension on Wednesday, winning the pole for Sunday's race at Pocono. At 19th in points before the race, he could have put himself back in contention for a Chase wild-card spot with a victory.

And he almost did it. Dew point, be damned. Logano led when the race was halted on Lap 125 of 200 because of rain, and a victory would have temporarily given him a wild-card berth. But he surrendered the lead when racing resumed and a tire issue relegated him to a 26th-place finish.

"It's a really big deal," he said of his performance amid the speculation. "Obviously, there's been a lot of rumors around our team lately, but at the same time I don't know if everyone has realized how good we've been doing lately. The last six or seven races we've done a good job. Indy I felt like we were going to have a good finish there and strategy just didn't go our way. There's not much you can do about that.

"We've been doing a good job lately and we've been building a lot of momentum and as we keep doing that, eventually a win is going to happen. I think the confidence in the whole team is definitely up right now, especially in me. That's what brings wins on I think is knowing you can do it. I think it helps out a lot."

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