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‘Why not us?’ Michigan's Brad Keselowski ready for strong run at second NASCAR Cup title

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brad Keselowski, the 36-year-old native of Rochester Hills, is in the NASCAR Cup playoffs for the 10th consecutive year.

Keselowski, who gave Roger Penske his first series championship in 2012, enters this year’s playoffs as a contender, but certainly not the favorite. He owns three wins and sits third in the standings with 29 points, still far behind top-seeded Kevin Harvick (seven wins), who enters with 57 points, and Denny Hamlin (six wins), who has 47.

The playoffs get underway Saturday night with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington with 16 drivers fighting it out during the final 10 races, concluding at Phoenix Nov. 8.

Brad Keselowski (2) finished third in the NASCAR Cup series regular season.

Keselowski was a frontrunner to win a second title in 2014 – heading into the playoffs with four wins – but had to settle for fifth in the final standings, despite winning twice while earning six top-5s in the postseason.

Four drivers will be sent to the sidelines after the first three races – Darlington, Richmond and Bristol – then the field will be cut in half after races at Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte road course. That will leave four drivers to battle for the title after events at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville.

“I told my team, met with them yesterday, that at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy … why not us?” said Keselowski, who drives the No. 2 Ford Mustang for Team Penske. “I still feel that way and that’s my approach – why not us? We can do it just as well as anybody and we’re ready for that challenge.”

Keselowski has three wins but two (Charlotte, Bristol) came from taking advantage of his opponent’s late mistakes. He also put on a dominating performance in winning at New Hampshire, leading for 184 of 301 laps.

And Keselowski has had success at Darlington, winning in 2018 and finishing second in 2015.

“To be good at Darlington you have to run up against the wall, as close as you can, for 500 miles and not hit it while still going super, super fast, the tires are falling off, you’re wearing out with it being super-hot outside, just have to be perfect,” said Keselowski, who signed a contract extension with Penske earlier this summer. “Your pit crew has to be perfect, make a lot of pit stops because the tires wear so much. My team two years ago when I won the race had just great pit stops, propelled us to the win.

“Four or five years ago we dominated the entire race and lost it on the final pit stop. You have to be perfect. I’ve had some great cars that I’ve screwed up, bounced one up the wall while running up front and having a chance to win, which kind of ruined our chance. I just think of it as a track that you just have to be absolutely perfect at to have a shot to win.”

NASCAR has added multiple tracks to the playoffs this season and Keselowski is pleased with the changes to the format.

“I really like the change made,” Keselowski said. “It’s different from what we’ve had in years past, but I think it’s different in a good way. In some ways it’s more challenging, and a lot of ways more exciting to have these combination of events put together the way they are.

“I think if you look at the finale of each round – Bristol, one of the most famed NASCAR tracks on the circuit. It’s just so fitting it’s one of the cutoffs. Then, of course you have the Roval (Charlotte road course), a track that most of the drivers will say makes the hair stand up on the back of their necks. And then Martinsville, a track going on 72 years now. What a terrific playoff schedule, much better than any format that we’ve seen to date, so I’m really pleased to see our sport make those kinds of adjustments.”

Brad Keselowski: “I told my team, met with them yesterday, that at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy … why not us?”

Keselowski has been in the series long enough to know the favorites don’t always end up holding the championship.

In fact, Harvick (seven wins), Kyle Busch (six) and Martin Truex (four) entered the 2018 playoffs as “The Big Three” while Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Joey Logano had just one win. In the end, it was Logano who was holding the trophy, winning two of the final four races, with Truex finishing second, Harvick third and Busch fourth.

In 2016, Jimmie Johnson won his seventh series championship, matching Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most titles. And Johnson’s final championship was a surprise after winning just two regular-season races before earning three playoff wins.

 “They (Harvick, Hamlin) have a lot of bonus points, but I don’t know if there’s enough bonus points in the world to get you through that second round because that second round is hairy,” Keselowski said.

“Vegas is going to be hairy, Talladega is going to be hairy, Roval is going to be hairy. The way the format is set up, it’s intentionally set up to not allow somebody to just coast through no matter how good your regular season is. So I suspect that at least one of those two guys will find themselves in spots at some point in time that they didn’t want to be.”

Defending series champion Kyle Busch and Truex could be considered underdogs in 2020.

Busch is still without a win this season but had plenty of chances at reaching Victory Lane, including last Saturday at Daytona when he led with less than 10 laps remaining before rookie Tyler Reddick wrecked him while trying to take the lead. Busch has 11 top-5 finishes, including three runnerup spots.

Truex won the 2017 series championship and finished second in ’18 and ’19, all with Cole Pearn as his crew chief. Pearn stepped down as crew chief following the ’19 season. Truex has one win this season and is entering the playoffs with momentum, collecting eight straight top-5 finishes, including third-place spots in both ends of the doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway and seconds in both ends of the doubleheader at Dover.

Cook Out Southern 500

Where: Darlington (S.C.) Raceway; 367 laps, 501.3 miles

When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

Last year: Erik Jones won after starting 15th.

Last race: William Byron took the lead on a two-lap overtime restart at Daytona International Speedway and won his first career race in his last chance to make the playoffs.