Friday September 19th, 2014

In uncertain times—and NASCAR’s trial run through a knockout-round edition of the Chase for the Cup surely qualifies—a little positivity can go a long way. Witness how far it has carried Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Ford team before this Sunday’s race at Loudon, NH (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) since the Chase began last weekend in Chicago.

• Who the Vegas wise guys like at Loudon

Two days before the Chicagoland race a light drizzle washed out the qualifying session, resigning Keselowski—the Chase’s top seed—to a spot on the grid based on his practice times. He could’ve fumed. Instead, after a break in the weather permitted a return to the track, the Penske driver tweeted: “Starting 25th, ended practice 20th, however top-5 speeds in race trim. #noworries”

On race day he showed just how good his car was. After 60 spins around Chicagoland’s 1.5-mile oval Keselowski climbed into the top 15. After 120 spins he took the lead. When his team radioed in before an impending pit stop to see if Keselowski needed anything, he couldn’t have sounded more content. “I wish I could ask you for something,” he said, “but I can't think of anything!”

2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup: This one's wide open

His team was just as upbeat through a disastrous pit stop that could’ve ruined the No. 2 team’s afternoon. After a cluster of debris in Turn 3 brought out the caution flag at the 182–lap mark, while his Ford was running in second place behind race leader Kevin Harvick, Keselowski broke from the field to get a fuel fill-up and four fresh tires.

The tire changer responsible for the front wheels on the No. 2 Ford, an angling enthusiast named Hunter Masling, handled the swap on the passenger side without incident. But midway though changing the driver’s side tire, he lost his balance and missed tightening two of the five lug nuts on the new wheel. Before he could even think about fixing the error, the jack dropped and Keselowski sped away.

Rather than cast about for cover, Masling immediately told crew chief Paul Wolfe about his mistake. The crew chief would’ve been within his right to melt down on Masling and the rest of the pit crew, even though another stop wouldn’t have cost Keselowski as much in positioning with the race still under yellow. Instead, Wolfe said this over the radio: “We get to pass some more cars!”

How cool is that?

Cooler still was Keselowski, as he worked his way back from 14th place to eighth with 225 laps to go. Then, after boldly passing the three-car duel between Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson, Keselowski grabbed the lead again with 12 laps to go and cruised on to Victory Lane.

The drama should’ve ended there for the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, who booked a spot in the next round of the Chase with his fifth victory of the season. But after the race, Mike Hoag, the road manager for Dale Earnhardt Jr., threw a palm tree’s worth of shade on the No. 2 team’s resilience-born triumph.

Hoag accused them of fitting their Ford with a right side skirt that flared out a bit more than is mandated, insinuating that the tweak might’ve given them an aerodynamic advantage over the field—this despite the passing grade the No. 2 Ford received from NASCAR officials following a requisite inspection after the race. “They cheated it up a bit on that stop,” Hoag wrote in one of a series of tweets that have since been deleted. “Caught ya.”

“Ever heard of glass houses?” Keselowski tweeted in a reply that read less like a jab at Earnhardt than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, a six-time Cup champion whose dominance has led to persistent speculation that he and Chad Knaus may be operating outside the rules.

Wolfe further dismissed the allegation as simple wear and tear. “When you go down on the flat, a lot of times that will cause a little bit of damage,” the crew chief told reporters. "That could have been what you were seeing there.”

NASCAR even took Keselowski’s car back to its research center in Charlotte for a closer look and still couldn’t find anything; if it had, it would’ve said something, in the way of a penalty issuance, on Tuesday. Instead, the day brought a different announcement: Hoag was stepping down from his post.

“It's been a fun ride, enjoyed every moment, on to something new,” he tweeted. “This was my decision, no one else's. To set the record straight. No plans on returning to the track.”

Keselowski, of course, will be back on the road and weaving through the field again this week at Loudon, where he's won the pole and has a win and six top-10 finishes in 10 starts.

Alas, another strong finish won’t help him put any more distance between him and the rest of his fellow Chasers. (The points will reset in another two weeks.) But it is a chance to keep building on the momentum of the last two weeks. At least, that’s how a team of unflappable optimists might spin it. 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.