Brant James
Sunday August 28th, 2011

Brad Keselowski has been astonishingly successful in the last five races Sprint Cup races, advancing 10 spots to 11th in the driver standings with two wins, a second, third and ninth-place finish that began the burst at Indianapolis. He's shaped the drama of NASCAR's inaugural wild-card process and is in the process of reshaping the top 10 and its automatic Chase for the Championship qualifiers.

And yet, with a victory on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Keselowski has yet to statistically clinch a Chase with two races remaining in the regular season. That would appear to be just a bookkeeping matter at this point, as his momentum cannot be quantified in box scores, not even Loop Data.

While Keselowski jigged atop the No. 2 Dodge despite a broken left ankle -- the other non-quantifiable variable in his fascinating August -- nearly half of the transfer positions were officially secured, however, as five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards clinched postseason spots, joining Kyle Busch, who sealed his place last week with a win at Michigan.

And as the titans established their postseason positions, out on the edge of playoff viability, Paul Menard's heart must have sung. Although his 30th-place finish, after being caught up in a wreck, dropped him two spots to 20th in points, he remained just inside the wild-card qualification boundary. If Keselowski is able to overtake Tony Stewart for 10th place, Menard would become the second wild card if able to stay ahead of David Ragan, who is currently 21st in points.

That bit of convoluted arithmetic and high-speed speculation is among five things we learned at Bristol.

1. Denny Hamlin lives. The 2010 series runner-up has spent the past four weeks attempting to mitigate his free fall out of Chase contention, and he managed well enough on Saturday, even after being caught in a potentially disastrous midrace accident. Hamlin's crew was able to repair minor damage to the No. 11 Toyota and put him in position to finish seventh, his first top-10 since a third at Loudon, N.H., six races ago. The result allowed Hamlin, a race-winner and possessor of the second and final wild card, to gain one spot to 13th in the driver standings. With Menard a husky 41 points behind, Hamlin figures to be secure unless Stewart or Clint Bowyer (12th in points) win for the first time this season in one of the final two regular-season races. Hamlin said he feels much better about his chances once -- if -- in the Chase. "This is the type of finish and these are the types of days we need to fight for a championship," he said. "If we get through the next two weeks, we'll be just fine."

2. Jimmie Johnson has awakened before his Chase alarm clock. In what Johnson calls a mentally "challenging" season trying to find speed, a fourth-place finish allowed him to pull into a tie for the points lead -- although Kyle Busch officially leads because he has more wins (three) than Johnson (one) -- and build momentum and collective dread among his counterparts entering the Chase. Johnson has five top-5s in his last seven races. It's almost like a rite of fall.

3. Jeff Gordon is up to the challenge. The four-time series champion led a race-high 206 of 500 laps, but settled for third when Keselowski was first off pit road on a yellow-flag pit cycle, and Martin Truex Jr. burned up too much of his time and tires after a restart. Gordon, a two-time winner this season who is fifth in points, appeared content enough after the race, however, perhaps because he remembers what a season rounding into title potential feels like, even though it has been a decade since he last won a championship. "I'm excited about our race team," Gordon said. "We've been running really strong, been leading a lot of laps, running up front at the big races. ... I'm having a blast right now, and when you're having fun it means you're competitive on a fairly consistent basis, and I hope we can keep that going because we can definitely do some damage and give some guys a real run for their money in the Chase." A Gordon-Johnson, teammate/friend/protégé championship tussle would be incredibly compelling and seems increasingly likely.

4. Kevin Harvick will not be a serious title contender unless something changes, and he knows it. Harvick was mired in 37th position, four laps down, on Lap 295, and he was fuming. The No. 29 Chevrolet was not to his liking and attempts at improving it on pit road had been fruitless. Amid some choice words for crew chief Gil Martin was a blunt truth: "This team hasn't been good for four months." Harvick won three of the first 12 races of the season, but has been moribund in the last dozen, with one top-5 and four top-10s. He's posted an average finish of 16th in his last seven races, during which time he has fallen from the points lead to fifth. Harvick is safely inside the Chase boundary, but he fell two spots on Saturday with a 22nd-place finish and he senses that his momentum is not positive. It was supposed to be that way after he finished a threatening third in points last season.

5. Stewart and Bowyer should Rochambeau for it. Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup champion, said last week at Michigan -- after finishing ninth and holding onto the 10th and final transfer spot -- that his would be a wasted playoff berth. Bowyer has flitted around postseason contention without ever seizing upon Stewart's vulnerability and began Saturday night 11th in the standings, but winless, putting him in limbo between a possible wild-card qualification and an automatic berth into the 10-race postseason. Their battle for that playoff spot was a woeful one on Saturday. Stewart was never a factor, finishing 28th, three laps down. Bowyer finished 26th, two laps down and fell to 12th in points, passed by Keselowski. Whereas it once seemed either Stewart or Bowyer would claim the 10th spot, it is now entirely plausible they could both be shut out of the Chase, given the recent incendiary performance of Keselowski. Both are currently higher in points than Hamlin, current possessor of the second wild card, and in theory could save their postseason with a victory, at either Atlanta or Richmond. But although Stewart has three wins at each of those two tracks, and Bowyer a win at Richmond, neither are suggesting such a season-saving effort with their recent performance.

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