Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing's No. 2 team were a discouraged group July 17 when they departed New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Keselowski's Dodge had blown a right front tire and hit the fence, relegating him to a 35th-place finish. He had entered the 19th Sprint Cup race of the season 21st in points and left in 23rd.
Keselowski had Chase wild-card aspirations due to his win at Kansas, but he needed to get into the top 20 in points to take advantage of it.
"After Loudon, I was really, really nervous," Keselowski said. "We popped the tire there at Loudon, knocked the wall down, just had a miserable day. Seemed like we kept taking one step forward, one step back, a good run, a bad run, a good run, a bad run. After Loudon, it was a big step backward."
Keselowski is in his second full season in Cup, and through 19 starts in 2011 he'd had two top-fives and four top-10s. With a team led by a Cup rookie crew chief in Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's Chase chances were hovering between slim and none.
Four races later, Keselowski is safely in the Chase and in the midst of one of the most remarkable rises in Cup history. With his second win of the season at Pocono, which put him 18th in the points, he was in good shape for one of the two wild cards. Keselowski followed with second at Watkins Glen and third at Michigan to get to 12th. He's 40 points in front of 20th-place David Ragan with three regular season races remaining.
"The last few weeks are more than I could ever ask for," Keselowski said. "As to why now and not before, I couldn't tell you. For our team, probably the biggest thing I could say is there's certainly some confidence and snowballing going on. One good run leads to another good run. I'm not sure how to quantify that, how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But it's been amazing."
Keselowski might not realize it, but his performances reflect how much he's learned throughout his limited time in Cup. Keselowski is going back to racetracks for the second, third and fourth time and knows what he wants out of the car. Wolfe is the other half of the equation, making the calls to give Keselowski what he wants.
Here's the evidence: Keselowski finished 23rd at Pocono and was 25th at Michigan in June.
"There's nothing better than being able to go back to a racetrack and have a notebook to work from," Wolfe said. "We saw that at Michigan. We came out for the first race practice and we were lost. When we came back for the second time, Brad had a better understanding of what the car was doing and an idea [of] what he wanted and it showed. We're starting to make our cars better and that's the encouraging thing. ... Sometimes you see it, sometimes not. I feel like I have a lot of room to grow and Brad is pretty new to the Cup series and has a long way to grow. We're definitely encouraged about our future together."
Wolfe was Keselowski's crew chief in the Nationwide Series championship last year. Their relationship has been the foundation in Cup.
"Being together last year was huge from the fact [that] the communication and confidence in one another has been there," Wolfe said. "We were able to accomplish so much. The start of this year was tough. Our cars weren't where they needed to be. It's my first year in Cup and I was trying to understand what I needed to do with the Cup car. There are a lot of things similar to Nationwide and a lot of things are much different.
"Some of it was taking time to get to some of the tracks and see how the Cup car reacted. We were trying to figure those things out. We weren't running like all of us hoped we would and our working together from last year kept us from losing faith and trust in each other. It [Cup] is a different level, and when you know and believe in each other, it helped keep everything together and kept us focused on making the car better. We're seeing the results now."
Keselowski has five top-10s in the last six races. New Hampshire was an anomaly. There are 13 races remaining -- three regular season, 10 Chase -- and Wolfe and Keselowski will be hitting 10 of those tracks for the second time this season. And the other three -- Atlanta, Chicago and Homestead -- are 1.5-mile tracks that have sister tracks that are alike.
Keselowski's hasn't just made the Chase. He's a contender to win it in a season that is more wide open than ever before.
"Keselowski is unbelievable," SPEED TV's Randy Pemberton said. "He's got the speed and he's up on the wheel. With a broken ankle [and an injured back from an Aug. 3 testing crash at Road Atlanta], he won at Pocono, drove to second at The Glen and third at Michigan. Nobody would have given him a shot at winning the championship six months ago, much less while injured, but he is going to be a contender."
Penske teammate Kurt Busch was the team's Chase and championship hopeful going into this season and he's been solid, eighth in the points with one win. But since New Hampshire, Busch has slipped from third in the points to eighth by driving off the track and finishing 27th at Watkins Glen and then hitting the wall several times and finishing 34th at Michigan. Are Busch's mistakes, overdriving what the car is capable of doing, a reaction to Keselowski's surge? It's possible and it's possible there's about to be a changing of the guard at Penske. Keselowski is the team's best prospect for a title heading into the Chase.