LONG POND, Pa. -- Following Friday afternoon's qualifying session at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski jumped on an airplane and arrived at Iowa Speedway in time for final NASCAR Nationwide Series practice. It's a double-duty weekend for the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who is juggling two races across as many time zones as his hopes of defending his title near a critical stage.
Keselowski is the only prominent premier-series driver making the back-and-forth trips this weekend to Iowa, a Nationwide race (8 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN) that was added to his schedule in the spring -- well before anyone realized the champion would be among those scrapping to get into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Why still do it, with the playoffs now just six races away?
"I made a promise I would go there, and I am going to make good on my promise," Keselowski said. "That is just as important as anything else I do."
That's Keselowski, resolute as ever, even as he risks becoming only the second defending champion of the Chase era -- joining Tony Stewart in 2006 -- to miss the playoffs the following season. Last weekend's 21st-place finish at Indianapolis dropped him four spots in the standings to 13th, and Ryan Newman's victory added another driver between him and a potential Wild Card berth.
Although very much still in the hunt -- just six points separate Keselowski from 10th-place Jeff Gordon, who right now owns the final guaranteed Chase berth -- the Penske Racing driver still doesn't have a victory, and he's finished 21st or worse in four of his last five starts. Circumstances have certainly played a role in some of those results, such as at Indianapolis when his No. 2 car wound up on the wrong end of fuel strategy.
Keselowski will admit, he hasn't felt as comfortable in the new Generation-6 car as he did in the version he drove to a title a year ago. "Areas where we were ahead ? were not allowed to be used, and areas where we were behind are areas where this year's rule package seems to really favor," he said. A change of manufacturer from Dodge to Ford only added to the transition, and heaped atop that were occasional mechanical issues and a 25-point penalty for a rear-end violation, which certainly looms large now.
And yet, despite it all, Keselowski believes the pieces remain in place.
"There have been a lot of circumstances, but I thought we had the car to win the race probably five or six times, and half of those the yellow came out at the wrong time, or I didn't execute the restart, or we had a bad pit stop. There has been a lot of talk about how Jimmie (Johnson) or Kasey (Kahne) or Matt (Kenseth) could easily have five or six wins. I think we could have five or six wins, and things just haven't all come together," he said.
"The races where we have had the speed and execution, the strategy hasn't gone our way, and the breaks haven't gone our way. The races where we haven't had speed to win, we have caught the strategy and execution, but it didn't matter because we weren't fast. We haven't put all the pieces together, but I know they are there and that is why I am more confident than perhaps those on the outside."
Still, crew chief Paul Wolfe is well aware that his team's margin for error is growing thinner with each passing week.
"We just need to have some solid runs," he said. "If we continue to put ourselves in the top-10 and top-five for the next six weeks, then we will surely have the points it takes to get in there. ? Obviously we can't afford to continue to have any 20th- or 30th-place finishes in the next six races. That would put us in a mode of having to win to get in the Chase. I wouldn't say we are panicked, but we are definitely not where we want to be, and we know it is going to be tough."
To be fair, Keselowski is far from the only driver struggling to generate enough momentum to lift himself above the glut of Chase hopefuls all hovering right around the two Wild Card positions. Just 19 points separate ninth through 13th in the standings, a narrow gap that's shuffled almost every week. The one consistent theme in this Race to the Chase has been the inability of any driver in that range to build any consistency.
"I think there is a lot of inconsistency this year. You look at the teams that are from 10th to 20th, there's just a great deal of inconsistency in there. None of those teams has shown the ability to maintain momentum. None of those teams has shown the ability from a speed standpoint or a reliability standpoint to get on a roll. Someone will, but I don't know who that is," said Jeff Burton, 20th in points.
"It just seems nobody can get in a rhythm. Someone will, but I expect to see a lot of inconsistencies. Now we've got Ryan winning last week. That puts more pressure on more teams. That more pressure forces people to do things that otherwise they wouldn't do and mistakes pop up. So, I think the next six weeks are going to be really interesting. I think it's going to be a dogfight."
And Keselowski is right in the middle of it. "I know we are doing the right things," he said. "I am not panicked from that sense. I know when it clicks, it is going to click really hard and heavy, and we are going to rattle off some really strong finishes, and potentially a lot of wins."
Toward that end, Wolfe believes the cars have been solid. A bigger headache has been pit road, leading the crew chief to shuffle his over-the-wall lineup for the last several races. He'll have another new combination in place for Sunday's event at Pocono (1 p.m. ET, ESPN). Keselowski, though, has remained his steady and confident self.
"I haven't really seen it a whole lot with the driver," Wolfe said. "I feel like he has been pretty steady through it all."
No wonder, then, Keselowski never considered asking out of Saturday night's Nationwide event at Iowa, where he'll compete in Penske's No. 22 car. In fact, he's bringing a few members of his Sprint Cup pit crew with him to the Hawkeye State, as Wolfe continues to shuffle personnel looking for the best combination on the No. 2 car.
"I had committed, and Iowa is a special track to me, and the Nationwide program is important to me as well," Keselowski said. "We have been having some struggles on pit road, and that has led to part of our struggles, and we are using this as a weekend for the Cup pit crew to go out there and pit the Nationwide car and try to get better on pit road. Going to Iowa is a way for me to support that cause. I am trying to look at the positives that way."
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