HAMPTON, Ga. -- Brad Keselowski stood on the rear steps of his transporter amid the din of the final laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion unable to have any say in the result. His No. 2 car was parked in front of him, its hood up and surrounded by crewmen, the smoke from the vehicle's charred innards perhaps carrying any realistic hopes of a title defense away.
It was an unceremonious way for a championship defense to end -- which very well may have been the case, given the consequences. An engine failure while Keselowski was leading the race was perhaps the cruelest blow in a season full of them, resulting in a 35th-place finish Sunday night and desperate situation entering the event next week at Richmond that decides the 12-driver field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Rather than challenging for a victory that might have squeezed Keselowski into the playoff, the Penske Racing driver plummeted to 15th in the standings, and a healthy 28 points out of the top 10. Without a race win to rely on, he'll likely now need a victory next Saturday night in Richmond and a lot of help in order to avoid becoming only the second reigning champion to miss the Chase.
In other words: a miracle on the level of what Jeremy Mayfield pulled off before the inaugural Chase in 2004, when he won the decider on the Virginia short track to secure a most unlikely playoff berth, and a feat not duplicated in the decade since.
"We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good. Obviously, we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven't put together the execution or the luck. There's only so much you can control. Maybe this was control, and maybe it wasn't. I don't know until the guys take (the engine) apart and look at it," Keselowski said.
"But we ran up front and 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 every week, and that's what it takes. That doesn't mean we don't have what it takes, we just don't have the consistency in putting all those pieces together this year. I know that all those pieces could come together tomorrow. Unfortunately, it didn't come together today and that's what matters the most."
Keselowski was leading on Lap 244 of the 325-lap event when he reported over the radio that he thought he had lost a cylinder. "I'm blowing up here, guys," he said. The failure began at the worst possible time, after Keselowski had moved up to 10th in points as they ran on the track, and seemed poised to make the big move he's been needing to make to get back into the championship conversation.
Keselowski told the No. 2 team that his gauges all looked normal, so the crew decided to have him make as many laps as possible, turning what had been a potential race-winning effort into a salvage job. On Lap 292, the engine had had enough, and Keselowski headed for the garage. Crew chief Paul Wolfe suspected a valve spring had failed, since they found some of them loose inside the vehicle.
"Not much we could do tonight," Wolfe said. "I felt like the guys worked hard and had a good piece and were doing what we needed to do to put ourselves in a decent position going into Richmond. It's just something out of our control. It just kind of seems how our year has gone. Anything that can go wrong seems to be going wrong. Some of that is on our end, some of that is on other ends. But overall, if something bad can happen, it seems like it's happening to us right now. It's frustrating. It's hard to continue to keep our head up."
Indeed, this title defense has been a trying one almost from the start. After ripping off four top-fives in as many races to start the season, the No. 2 team came back to the pack. There was the rear-end housing violation before the Texas race in April that resulted in a 25-point penalty against Keselowski, and another for the vehicle being too low at Dover that cost the driver six more.
Although the No. 2 car has often shown speed -- which was certainly the case Sunday night -- there's been an inability to build any consistency on the race track, an inability to get to Victory Lane, and now an engine failure on the heels of a crash last weekend at Bristol.
"At this point it's not frustration. I'm beyond frustration," Keselowski said. "At this point, you're just looking above going, 'This must be some kind of test to prove how strong we are and what our character is,' because I believe in the people I'm around. I think they're doing the right things, but it's just not working. So I'm reserved to this being a test, and I love challenges, and this is going to be one hell of a challenge."
Saturday night in Richmond certainly will be. Without a victory, Keselowski is fifth in the Wild Card standings, and three of the drivers ahead of him have race wins. Consider that at this point a year ago, Jeff Gordon was considered a long shot to secure a Chase berth, and he was third in the Wild Card standings with a race victory, which allowed him to nip Kyle Busch for the final berth by three points on the final night of the regular season.
By comparison, Keselowski faces a more difficult road.
"I think at this point we go there, we do everything we can, take every chance we can to win the race, and then I guess see how the points fall out, because I'm not sure who's where right now if we can get a win," Wolfe said. "I think we still have a shot at it. it's not like there's no hope left. Just go for broke, and what happens, happens. I'm just proud of the guys working hard tonight, and giving us a shot to run up front and lead some laps. We were leading the race when we broke."
"What can you do? You can sit here and be mad and stomp your feet and be a jerk about it, but it just broke," Keselowski said. "That's racing. It's kind of been the story of our year."
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