Brad Keselowski and Dave Blaney were Talladega's Odd Couple. Nothing seemed to fit. Keselowski drives a Dodge a for well-established and well-funded Penske Racing; Blaney a Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing, a three-year-old organization with one of the smallest budgets in Sprint Cup. Keselowski is racing in the Chase; Blaney hadn't finished in the top-10 all season.
They committed to running with each other before arriving at Talladega and stuck together for the entire 188-lap distance. It became a perfect partnership, benefiting both drivers and teams. Blaney finished third, tying his career best and the highest finish in Baldwin's brief history. Keselowski pushed Blaney across to take fourth (the top among all Chasers) and keep himself in the thick of the championship, third and 18 points behind Carl Edwards.
Blaney and Keselowski hardly knew each other. The genesis of the pairing was the friendship of Baldwin, a former Cup crew chief, and Paul Wolfe, a rookie Cup crew chief.
"Tommy is good friends with Paul and they put it together a couple of weeks prior to Talladega," Blaney said. "I was surprised that the No. 2 team [Keselowski] would commit to doing it with us. Those guys were committed to working together and they did not waver. They had a good plan.
"I had thought Brad was a really smart guy and I was right about that. He had a good outlook and a good plan. He's a smart, smart guy. I don't think I've ever had a restrictor-plate race where I talked to one driver. Brad and I talked back and forth the whole time. That was big."
The relationship was based on trust and speed. Blaney led with five laps to go (and 21 laps total) at Talladega in April before getting shuffled back to 27th at the checkered flag.
"Dave and I worked it out before we got to Talladega," Keselowski said. "Dave is a smart racer. He doesn't put himself in bad positions and he had a fast race car in the spring."
Working with Blaney was Keselowski's priority. Penske teammate Kurt Busch was the next choice. The Penske team wanted to split its drivers to avoid both being caught up in the same accident.
"The main reason not to run with Kurt was that we are both in the Chase and the two-car draft is too unpredictable," Keselowski said. "We didn't want to take each other out in one stroke."
Keselowski and Blaney worked together from the first practice. It worked.
"I've always had a lot of respect for Dave," Keselowski said before the race. "He's calm and cool under pressure and has a fast race car. That makes him one of the best dance partners."
Blaney started 41st, Keselowski 16th. They were running together by the fourth lap, Blaney 29th and Keselowski pushing him. They ran hard, moved up, then fell back to cool down the No. 2's engine. They stayed out of trouble and lined up side-by-side, 14th and 15th for the green-white-checkered.
"With Brad Keselowski's help, we could hang in all day and took advantage of getting a big push at the right time," Blaney said. "That's what it comes down to here, having a car that will roll the last couple of laps to do that. It just worked out. We were in the right place at the right time, squeezed through a couple of holes. We have to thank Brad; he stayed with us all day long every lap.
"It's [third] huge for a race team. It's a tiny, little team. This race car we've got, it was a Bill Davis [former team] car in 2007, 2008. It's not a killer. It's a big, big accomplishment for us to come out third."
The Baldwin team hasn't been a start-and-parker this season thanks to sponsorship from Golden Corral, which joined the organization at Daytona in February. Third is a reward and a strong selling point for Baldwin next season. And the ability to run entire races has brought other backers through the season. Blaney is 32nd in driver points; Baldwin 32nd in owner points. They're respectable. Baldwin is virtually guaranteed of finishing in the top 35, which puts the team into the Daytona 500 next year.
"Golden Corral ... has let us race more than we could without them," Blaney said. "It just legitimizes Tommy Baldwin's team more and more. For sure, we're making progress. We're getting a little better equipment and we've got some really experienced people."
Having escaped Talladega, Keselowski and Wolfe turn their attention to winning the championship. It has been an amazing season for them and the No. 2 team. They gave the Penske organization its first NASCAR championship a year go in the Nationwide Series and they're right there for the Sprint Cup with four races to go. They are a team that has improved dramatically as the season has progressed and, notably, returned to some of the same racetracks. Three of the four remaining races are second stops, although re-configured Phoenix doesn't count.
"Our mile-and-a-half program has really turned around as the season progressed and that has me excited about Texas and Homestead," Keselowski said. "I think we'll be strong at both of those tracks. The Phoenix notebook can basically be used as kindling for a bonfire now. That is a completely different track and it will definitely be a wild-card race.
"There is no doubt, though, that Paul comes back to a racetrack for the second time with a better car than he left with the first time. That makes my job much easier."
The next stop is Martinsville. Keselowski finished 19th there in the sixth race of the season. The Keselowski-Wolfe partnership has run 26 races since and they clearly have made giant leaps forward. It should show Sunday.
"We have a damn good shot at winning the championship," Keselowski said. "I feel great about Martinsville this weekend, as well as Texas and Homestead. We've done exactly what we need to do, we've given ourselves a chance. The Roush cars [leader Edwards, second place Matt Kenseth] will be tough, but we really have nothing to lose."