HAMPTON, Ga. - Brad Keselowski stood on the back deck of his hauler, looking down at the smoking engine of his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford. Like a lame horse, the Blue Deuce had hobbled around the track for as long as it could, finally giving up the ghost with 18 laps remaining in the AdvoCare 500. With it died any hope of a routine, stress-free race next weekend in Richmond.
No longer is the Chase a guarantee for Keselowski, not even with a victory. No, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion is now in the awkward and agonizing position of needing help from other drivers — several other drivers — to keep alive his faint hopes of repeating as Sprint Cup champion.
The night had started out well enough. He began in 11th place, only four points out of the Chase, a figure he could make up in qualifying. And he ran well for much of the race, even leading 31 laps. He didn't need a win, just a strong enough push to keep himself in the top 10. It certainly seemed like he'd head into the final race of the regular season with his fate in his own hands.
Then, with less than 100 laps remaining, fate intervened by sabotaging two cylinders of Keselowski's engine. He began dropping through the field as if he were dragging cinderblocks, staying just a whisper ahead of the black flag that would force him to the garage. Finally, after a little more than 50 laps, the engine failed completely, and Keselowski limped back to his hauler.
He didn't have far to go; the champion gets the prized hauler parking spot closest to the track. And as his team maneuvered the powerless car into position to be loaded onto the hauler, Keselowski took off his white helmet, stared at the smoke rising from the engine, and shook his head in disbelief.
He did press then, because that's what he does, talking first with ESPN and then with a small crush of print and radio reporters. He was calm, yes, because what else can you do? Throw a fit? Scream at the media? Sulk and pout? Options, yes, but options with low returns.
"I'm beyond frustration," he said. "At this point you're just looking above going, 'this must be some kind of tes tto prove how strong we are, and what our character is' ... I love challenges, and this is going to be one hell of a challenge."
The math doesn't work in his favor now; he sits in 15th place, with obstacles the size of Atlanta Motor Speedway's looming grandstands between him and the Chase. Even a win doesn't guarantee entry into the Chase; he needs Ryan Newman to place 9th or worse and Martin Truex Jr. to place 14th or worse. And to get in without a win, he'll need to close the 28-point gap between himself and 10th-place Kurt Busch, while hoping fellow non-win driver Jeff Gordon finishes 23 places below him.
Long odds indeed, even for a guy who's defied expectations more than any driver of the last half-decade.
"We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good," he said. "We continue to show that we at least have the pieces of what it takes every week to be a title threat and to be in the Chase, but we just haven't put together all those pieces, and that's what it takes." It's a long, doubtless painful fall for a driver who was the absolute model of consistency from mid-2011 right on through the moment he drank from a gargantuan Miller Lite glass on national television, the sports world watching and exulting along with him.
At many tracks, drivers can duck through side gates and disappear from the garage like wraiths, dodging the questioning media and autograph-seeking fans. Atlanta isn't laid out that way; drivers must take a long walk the entire length of the garage to get to the safety and solitude of their motor homes. It's usually a daunting gauntlet, but on this night Keselowski and his PR rep walked it alone. Nobody bothered him for autographs. Indeed, almost no one looked in his direction.
There was still a race going on, even if the defending champ was no longer a part of it.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-