In a sport of speed, Brad Keselowski likely will need to rely on guile to win his second NASCAR Cup series championship Sunday in Florida.
A surprise participant in the final four format, after struggling to match the top speeds of quicker competitors for much of the season, Keselowski joins the faster cars of Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in vying for the 2017 championship in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Keselowski, Busch and Harvick would win their second championships, to join 15 drivers in NASCAR history who have won more than one.
Truex, the favorite, seeks his first.
It is also a big weekend for Keselowski, of Rochester, because his truck series team driver Austin Cindric has a shot at that NASCAR championship Friday. Keselowski announced in August he would fold Brad Keselowski Racing (BKR), and going out with the title would cap his entrepreneurial effort.
In the Cup race, an array of observers generally handicaps the field as: Truex the fastest, Harvick and Busch about tied and Keselowski hoping a wily strategy carries the day.
“He just hasn’t matched the speed of the other three competitors,” said former crew chief Steve LeTarte, and NBC analyst. “But actually, I think that makes this No. 2 car more dangerous.”
Jimmie Johnson won his seventh Cup championship in the race last year, despite having the fourth fastest car, when track incidents eliminate competitors and provided a shifting context for strategy and tactics.
Without a pit, tire or fuel strategy, especially something in response to racing conditions that his three rivals are slow to anticipate our counter, Keselowski, 33, the only cup championship driver ever born in Michigan, will likely fall short of his second championship.
“They’re going to have to bring something to Miami that they have not been able to bring yet,” said Jeff Burton, who won 21 races as a driver and is a race analyst for NBC.
“But in the playoffs and every form of sport, we have seen teams step up and find a way to bring their very best when the chips are down, and their chips are down this weekend.”
Keselowski’s advantage is that he and his longtime crew chief Paul Wolfe are considered among the brainiest tacticians in the field, capable of snatching victory from defeat.
“If you take this team and put them the fourth out of four on speed, I think they know how to put the pressure on the other three teams, just by pit decisions,” LeTarte said.
But Wolfe said before any strategy or tactics, he is still trying to get some more speed.
“Ultimately, we need to bring our best car down there and have our best effort with no mistakes,” Wolfe said. “We feel like we've had a little catching up to do. We’ve been trying to find speed everywhere we can.”
Some racing veterans think a heavy reliance on strategy is something that made the normally voluble Keselowski a little quiet, this week.
“Harvick is basically all business, but he’s ready to throw things out there,” said the former champion Dale Jarrett, who spent time with the four contenders in NBC studios.
“Kyle Busch seemed to be ready to accept any challenge that anybody wanted to throw. Truex was very loose, and it seemed that Keselowski was a little more reserved yesterday.
“I’m not sure that he’ll continue that, but I think — yeah, he’s trying to figure out how they’re going to make this happen.”
Despite a likely speed deficit, few are counting out Keselowski or Wolfe.
“I think no one is more cerebral when it comes to drivers in the cup series than Brad Keselowski,” said Nate Ryan, another NBC analyst.
“I think he’s lying in wait.”
LeTarte said Wolfe could make the difference.
“He understands how to not only call a race, but he also knows how to get off sequence, off the people he’s racing,” LeTarte said.
“How many races have we seen where the No. 2 is out there running when he should have pitted or pitted when he should be running? It takes a sharp calculator and some smart minds to keep up with what Paul Wolfe is doing.”
About potential strategies, Wolfe played coy.
“There's a lot that can happen, and I wouldn't say there's a lot of strategy per se,” he said. “I think it's pretty straightforward.
“It's a track where the tires are very important. How you manage your tires early in the race, if there's a lot of cautions, I think that could be the piece maybe with the potential to see a little different strategy. But usually I think the guys that are racing for the championship are going to try to stay in sync with each other for the most part,” Wolfe said. “so we'll just kind of have to see how that plays out.”