Can Brad Keselowski become a regular Sprint Cup challenger?
Will he be back?
That's the larger question about Brad Keselowski, who currently trails Jimmie Johnson by only seven points -- the equivalent of seven positions on the track -- in the Sprint Cup standings with just two races remaining.
No question, Keselowski is having a dream season. In his third fulltime year on the circuit, he already has career highs for wins (five), top-five finishes (13) and top-10s (22). Perhaps most impressive, in his last 10 starts, Keselowski has bettered his career average finish at each track.
But does this mean that Keselowski, 28, will become an annual contender for the Cup championship? Recent history suggests it won't be easy for Keselowski to repeat his 2012 performance, especially if he ends up losing the title to Johnson (which I think will happen). After all, every driver that narrowly lost the championship to Johnson wasn't the same the following season. Here's a look at what happened to the five drivers Johnson outdueled for his five titles:
• 2007: Matt Kenseth -- after finishing runner-up to Johnson in '06 -- had two DNF's early in the Chase and was never a factor in the playoffs. He finished the season fourth.
• 2008: Jeff Gordon -- after losing the '07 title to Johnson -- failed to win a single race for the first time in 14 seasons and finished seventh in the standings.
• 2009: Carl Edwards -- after losing the '06 title to Johnson in spite of compiling more top-five finishes (19 to 15) -- failed to win a race and had the fewest amount of top-five runs (seven) of his Cup career. He finished 11th in the standings.
• 2010: Mark Martin -- after taking five checkered flags in '09 but came in second to Johnson -- failed to win a single race and didn't make the Chase. Martin essentially hasn't been heard from since.
• 2011: Denny Hamlin -- after losing to Johnson in the '10 Chase despite holding the lead heading into the season-finale at Miami-Homestead Speedway -- had a career-low five top-five finishes and came in ninth in the final standings. You could argue that Hamlin hasn't been the same driver since.
So can Keselowski -- should he fall short of Johnson -- buck this trend? His team, Penske Racing, is moving to a new manufacturer next season (from Dodge to Ford), and these transitions are often bumpy and speed sapping. But Keselowski has an elite crew chief atop his pit box in Paul Wolfe and clearly Keselowski hasn't yet reached his racing potential. You have to go back to 2004, when 26-year-old Kurt Busch hoisted the big trophy at Homestead, to find a driver younger than Keselowski who won the championship.
But the case of Busch illustrates another point about drivers in the Chase era (which began in 2004) not named Jimmie Johnson: Even if you win the championship, it's the rule -- not the exception -- to disappear the following season. In 2005 Busch came in 10th in the standings. The 2005 Cup winner, Tony Stewart, failed to even make the Chase in '06 and this season Stewart, the reigning champ, is currently eighth in the standings.
Will Keselowski be back in title contention next season? If he is, then NASCAR will finally have what the sport is in desperate need of: a genuine rivalry between Johnson and another driver. And it would be a doozy, because based on the white-knuckled racing between the two last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson and Keselowski are capable of producing stirring racing theater, which should continue on Sunday at Phoenix International Speedway.
Johnson and Keselowski are the only two drivers left in the title hunt (Clint Bowyer is in third place and distant 36 points back) and are the two to watch closely when the green flag drops Sunday:
When he's held the points lead with two races left in the season, Johnson has never lost a championship. He's rightfully earned the reputation as being the best closer in NASCAR -- not only of his generation, but also in the sport's history, which makes Keselowski's task all the more daunting.
It's been written many times in this space, but Johnson's not-so-secret weapon during his title years has been the schedule. He doesn't have a weak track in the Chase and it's been especially helpful to him that one of his best tracks, Phoenix, is the second-to-last race in the playoffs. He's dispatched many of his rivals here (see Kenseth in 2006, Gordon in 2007 and Martin in 2009) and, given that Johnson has won the last two weeks from the pole, he must be considered an overwhelming favorite to take the checkers on Sunday.
How good is Johnson in the desert? In his last 10 starts at the one-mile track, Johnson has four wins and nine top-five finishes. In fact, he hasn't finished outside of the top-five in a Chase race at PIR since he began collecting Cup titles in 2006. So deep into the Chase, when it matters most, Johnson has always -- EVERY SINGLE TIME -- delivered a solid performance here. I fully expect him to end up in Victory Lane on Sunday.
Keselowski showed as much aggression on the track last weekend at Texas as any driver has all season in NASCAR. With the laps winding down, Keselowski was running in first when Johnson moved to the high-line to make the pass on the front stretch. There is an unspoken etiquette among NASCAR drivers that basically says that it's a no-no to make contact with a driver on the front- or back stretch that is passing you for the lead (especially when the oncoming car is faster, which Johnson was) but Keselowski slammed into the advancing Johnson, unwritten rules be damned. The two nearly lost control, but neither wrecked, and Johnson eventually sailed by Keselowski for the win. Keselowski wound up second.
After the race several drivers had issues with Keselowski's aggressive tactics. Tony Stewart said Keselowski had a "death wish" and Matt Kenseth also shook his head when asked about Keselowski. This illustrates a problem that Keselowski will have over these next two weeks: He doesn't have as many friends on the track as Johnson.
During his title runs, Johnson has prided himself on not making any enemies, which has translated into drivers giving him ample room on the track and ceding the spot when they see the No. 48 Chevy approaching in their rearview mirror. Will Keselowski be afforded the same courtesies at Phoenix and Homestead? Don't bet on it.
In six career starts at PIR, Keselowski's average finish is 22.2. But the past hasn't been prologue for the No. 2 team this season, and Keselowski did come in fifth at Phoenix in late February. It says here he'll do better than that on Sunday.
My prediction: Just like in Texas, Johnson will pass Keselowski late and the pair will again finish one-two, which will mean the championship won't be decided until the final laps of the season at Homestead.