CONCORD, N.C. -- True to their nature, they were going to be aggressive. They were going to push it one more lap.
The reading on the fuel-pressure gauge certainly gave crew chief Paul Wolfe faith that they could do it -- similar numbers in testing, after all, had indicated enough gasoline to encircle a 1.5-mile track. Brad Keselowski had certainly shown the ability to save fuel when it counted, as evidenced by his victory in what became a fuel-mileage contest earlier in this Chase. And from the very beginning of this championship campaign, the No. 2 team had shown itself to be anything but conservative, and until Saturday night every one of their decisions had paid off.
Until Keselowski uttered four words over the radio with 59 laps remaining at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I just ran out," he said. And suddenly he was crawling around the race track trying to get to pit road, and suddenly the best car in the event was resigned to salvage an 11th-place finish, and suddenly his lead in the championship race had been chopped in half, from 14 points to seven over Jimmie Johnson.
Saturday night the team that had done everything right over the course of this Chase encountered its first real hiccup, in a series events that prevented the car that led the most laps from being in first place at the checkered flag. There was the pit stop before the No. 2 team decided to try and stretch it, where Wolfe surmises that his crew didn't get all the fuel in the car. There was Keselowski running dry in Turn 4 after he had passed the entrance to pit road, and having to go all the way around again, and then struggling to get the vehicle to restart after the pit stop. And there were Denny Hamlin and Johnson, Keselowski's two closest pursuers for the title, managing top-three finishes and closing the gap.
It's been a charmed first half to this Chase for Keselowski, who won two of the first three races in the playoff, and escaped the Big One on the final lap at Talladega with a larger lead than he'd enjoyed before, and to this point had looked as bulletproof as another certain driver in a blue and white car over a certain five-year run. Now Johnson is seven back, Hamlin 15. On the brink of pulling away, Keselowski has been reeled back in. But don't expect anything about the way he's approaching this title run to change.
"This 2 team, and I know I speak for myself and I think I speak for everybody else, we're not going to play defense," Keselowski said, standing by his car in the garage area after the race. "We're not going to put the prevent defense out there. We're going to go at you, and we're going to try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes we're going to miss, and they're going to get a big play out of it. But we've hit 'em a lot, and that's why we're in the points lead, and we're going to keep after it."
Although the finish line can barely be glimpsed on the distant horizon, there is still plenty that can happen in this Chase. One year ago Johnson came to Charlotte four points back in the championship standings, and with everyone shuddering over the possibility of a sixth straight title. Five years earlier leaving the same track, other drivers were calling Jeff Burton "Iceman" because of the way he had thwarted every obstacle that threatened to wipe out his points advantage. Neither won the title in those respective seasons. One year ago, Tony Stewart was 24 points back and had decided to fire his crew chief.
So we've been through only the first chapter, with plenty of potential plot twists still ahead. Even so, the way Keselowski and Wolfe so clinically glided through one race after another was difficult to dismiss. Johnson may have had the reputation, Hamlin may have had the potential, but Keselowski was actually doing it, succeeding in that way of his that can get under the skin and into the heads of rivals, seizing hold of that top spot in the standings and daring anyone to knock him off.
He's still there, although Charlotte exposed the potential price of the No. 2 team's aggressive nature. Would Keselowski have won the race had he come to the pits one lap earlier? Perhaps not -- the driver guesses he might have finished fourth or fifth. But he was also in a car that led 139 laps, and quickly made up for a 20th-place starting position, and cut into his final deficit after he exited the pits that last time in 16th. The crew chief certainly would have liked the chance to find out.
"Obviously, we had the speed in the car," Wolfe said. "I think we had one of the best cars tonight. We were able to overcome our qualifying effort and get up front. I don't think there was anybody who was stronger than us. We were in a position where I felt like we had a shot to win if we could save that little bit of fuel, if we could do that. Just missed it a little bit."
Even after Keselowski ran out, even though he pitted after almost everyone else, he still had to come in again -- likely because all the fuel hadn't gotten into the car on the previous stop. "I don't know how to save you any more," he told Wolfe over the radio before the decision was made to short-pit, and hopefully save enough time to regain some lost ground. While Clint Bowyer was holding off Hamlin for the victory, Keselowski was left to pick off as many spots as he could.
Afterward, though, there was no public second-guessing over the way it had unfolded. True to the No. 2 team's style, they took a chance and moved on. The difference is, this time it didn't work out. "We would have liked to get the finish where we deserved to be. But that's OK," Keselowski said. "Great effort, solid car, and we know we've got something great for Kansas and all the mile-and-a-halfs coming up. We may not have won the race today, but we definitely put out a message that we're going to be a tough car to beat week in and week out."
Aggression has been this group's battle cry from day one. Many teams tend to get conservative in the heat of a championship race -- Keselowski and Wolfe are determined to buck the trend. Even last week at Talladega, with so much at stake, they pledged not to ride around in the back. The events of Saturday night proved the first real hurdle the No. 2 team has faced in this Chase, but they're unlikely to alter the outfit's strategy: all out, every week.
"What got us to this point was being aggressive with our strategy and how we run a race, and we're not going to change that approach as we run down through the end of this championship Chase," Wolfe said. "Ninety percent of the time it works out for us, and we get the finishes we want. And tonight, we missed it a little bit."
Keselowski's reaction over the radio told the tale. "Good run today," he said. "You win some, you lose some that way. All good." In the immediate aftermath of running dry, there was only one time when Keselowski seemed even remotely snappish with his crew chief, and he quickly apologized. Told he led the most laps in the race, he accentuated the positive. "That's something," he said.
Wolfe wasn't surprised. "That's Brad. That's this race team," he said. "We win and lose together as a team. He knows we were doing our deal tonight, and sometimes you win on those deals and sometime you lose. He knows that, and he's able to keep his composure, and I think that's part of the reason why we're in this battle for a championship right now."
- Paul Wolfe
- Brad Keselowski
- Denny Hamlin