The always blunt Brad Keselowski climbed from his car after qualifying at Sonoma this past week and stated, "We've got some work to do, because I don't think we're all that great right now."
He was referring to his team's chances in Sunday's road-course race, but he just as easily could have been talking about the 2013 season. The simple fact is, as we near the midway point, the defending Sprint Cup champion isn't all that great right now.
Keselowski's 21st-place showing at Sonoma marked the seventh time in the past eight races that he has failed to crack the top 10. This comes after a blistering start to the season in which he had four top-5 finishes and seven top 10s in his first eight starts. Since then, he's dropped from third to ninth in the point standings and is only 10 points away from falling out of the top 10 entirely. In fact, the standings are so crowded that Keselowski is a mere 29 points ahead of 17th place Kurt Busch. He's also only one early crash or mechanical failure away from dipping into territory rarely seen by a defending Cup champion.
Over the past 40 years, since NASCAR consolidated its schedule, no defending Cup champion has finished worse than 12th in the standings (not including 1992 champ Alan Kulwicki, who died in a place crash in April of 1993). In fact, only five drivers have finished worse than seventh. The average finishing position for the defending champion over the past four decades has been fourth place.
Yet here we have Keselowski on the verge of being evicted from NASCAR's penthouse and moving into a ground-floor duplex. Making the situation even more disconcerting for Keselowski is the fact that he is winless this season, meaning at the moment he couldn't even capture one of the two Chase wild-card berths given to drivers outside the top 10 in points who have the most victories. With 10 races to go before the 12-car Chase field is set, we are looking at the distinct possibility that NASCAR's defending Sprint Cup champion might not even qualify for the Chase.
It has been an odd season for Keselowski, who wouldn't even be in this precarious situation if not for a pair of penalties that NASCAR imposed on his team earlier this season for failing post-race inspection. The two infractions cost him a total of 31 points -- 25 for having an illegal part at Texas, and six for his car being too low at Dover. Without those penalties, Keselowski would be in fifth place in the standings.
Actually, it isn't the points he lost that should concern Keselowski so much. It's his performance on the track since that first penalty was handed down (an infraction that included a three-race suspension for crew chief Paul Wolfe). Keselowski had a solid sixth-place outing at Kansas a few days after the initial penalty was announced. Since then, however, he has had only one solid run: a fifth-place finish at Dover. Take away that race, and Keselowski's average finish since leaving Kansas has been 23.6.
The one positive for Keselowski is that it was at this point last season when he truly began to flash championship form. He arrived last year at Kentucky Speedway -- the site of this week's race -- in 10th-place in the standings. He picked up the victory that weekend, beginning a stretch of 17 top-10 finishes over the final 20 races. Plus, as Keselowski is quick to point out, if the Chase began today, he would be in the field.
"I don't have to make up any points right now. I'm in the top 10," he said recently. "That's where my head's at. I'm in the Chase right now as it stands today. I think that's an important part to acknowledge. There's no benefit or reward for winning the regular season. Does everybody want to do it? Yes. Do I want to do it? Hell yeah, but it doesn't mean anything.
"Being in the top 10 in points, having wins and having a team that's properly positioned for the Chase with momentum is all that matters. I'd like to see us perform at a higher level, absolutely. I want to have wins. But I'm not throwing out an anchor and panicking. I don't think we're that far off."
Granted, it might indeed be too early for Kesolowski to panic. But it is certainly not too early for the defending champ to start feeling some genuine concern about the way his season is going.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- It was an uneventful ninth-place showing at Sonoma for Johnson, who has managed only one Sprint Cup victory on a road course in 23 careers starts (at Sonoma in 2010). He will gladly take a top 10 and move on.
2. Carl Edwards (2nd) -- Edwards' third-place finish at Sonoma was his first top 5 since Talladega in early May. But he has now posted 15 consecutive top-20s, making him easily the most consistent driver of the first half of the season.
3. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- Despite being one of the biggest talkers in NASCAR, Bowyer has been one of the sport's best drivers this year and he's done it rather quietly. He hasn't made much big news on the track, partly because he has no wins or poles. But he has posted nine top-10 finishes, including four in the past five races.
4. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- Harvick easily has been the best driver on the circuit over the past six races, with six top 10s and a victory, and a 5.8 average finish. Johnson, by comparison, has an average 13.5 finish during that span. The only thing preventing Harvick from moving up the rankings is the consistency of Edwards and Bowyer.
5. Greg Biffle (9th) -- Biffle's big jump in the rankings is based more on the struggles of others rather than on his eighth-place finish at Sonoma. Still, it is becoming evident that his recent six-race stretch of mediocrity was an aberration. Take away those races, and Biffle has an average finish of 8.1 in 10 starts.
6. Tony Stewart (5th) -- A late collision with Jeff Burton ended Stewart's run of four consecutive top-10 finishes. He might be 15th in the point standings, but he has unquestionably been a top-10 driver during the past five weeks.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- Earnhardt never has been much of a road racer, with only three top-10 finishes in 27 career starts, and none since 2005. So his 12th-place showing at Sonoma actually was a decent run for him.
8. Matt Kenseth (7th) -- Kenseth was in contention for much of the race, but wound up sliding back to a 19th-place finish. Since picking up his third victory of the season at Darlington, he's managed only one top 10 in the past five races.
9. Kyle Busch (8th) -- The Jekyll-and-Hyde season continues for Busch, as a late spin following contact with Edwards sent him to a 35th-place finish. There is no middle ground for Busch, who has finished sixth or better in nine races this season, but 23rd or worse in the other seven, including five outside the top 30.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (unranked) -- His victory at Sonoma enabled him to bump Joey Logano from the final spot in the rankings, even though Logano had a solid 11th-place finish. Take away a blown engine at Dover, and Truex has an average finish of 8.7 over the past nine races.