RICHMOND, Va. -- Brad Keselowski is big on lists.
The reigning champion of NASCAR's top series isn't shy about giving team owner Roger Penske lists of things he thinks the organization could improve on. Should Keselowski fail to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway -- and the odds are stacked against him -- his next list could be a long one indeed.
"Obviously," Keselowski said Thursday, on the eve of NASCAR's regular-season finale. "I have a long list of things I know we can do better, and we haven't. We've got to find those things and hit them and be better not just next year if that's the scenario, but right now. Because whether we make the Chase or miss it, I still plan on going out and trying to win the next 10 races. I think we can have a shot at doing that."
Last weekend's engine failure at Atlanta put Keselowski in a desperate situation, and in real danger of becoming only the second defending champion (joining Tony Stewart in 2006) to miss the sport's 10-race playoff. The mathematics that can get Keselowski into the Chase are complicated, but the bottom line is he has to win the race -- something he hasn't done yet this year -- and hope Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. finish deeper in the field.
It's a long shot at best, a situation even more dire than the one Jeff Gordon overcame last season to make the Chase by three points. There are a number of factors that have Keselowski in this position, among them a penalty that cost him 25 points for a rear-end violation at Texas, and another six for the car being too low at Dover. There were wrecks like that at Bristol that hampered his chances. But if the reigning champion is left on the outside looking in Saturday night, his list is more likely to focus on factors he and his No. 2 team could control rather than those it couldn't.
Asked how much of what put him in his current position is correctable, Keselowski surmised roughly 50 percent. "I know I did all I could do at Atlanta. I know I did all I could do at Bristol," he said. "The items that disappoint me or really weigh heavily on my mind are the ones I could control and didn't do the best I could. Like Pocono, when we finished sixth or seventh with a third-place car. Those are the ones that stand out."
The net result of all that is the very real possibility that Keselowski will be unable to defend his championship. How would he handle that? Keselowski jokes that he's built a boxing ring, and will get in and start punching something. In reality, he won't really know until if and when it happens.
"I do know I feel great about the majority of the people that are around me," Keselowski said. "I think different circumstances, and we could be having a lot different conversations. But we're not. I see the glass being at least half full and not half empty. But either way, not making the Chase would obviously be a disappointment, and our expectations as a team are to make the Chase."
If that doesn't happen? Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano believes Keselowski would emerge more resolute than ever.
"Brad's tough. Brad's mentally very, very tough," he said. "I don't think it would affect him. Obviously, that would be a big blow for him, yes. But I don't see him curling up into a ball and you're not going to see him the rest of the season. He's going to be out there still trying to win races, and probably win a few by the end of the season just to show everybody, because that's the competitor that he is. I'd be willing to put money on that after last week, he's twice as motivated to come to Richmond and win this thing and get in the Chase and prove everybody wrong. That's how tough he is."
Even so, the frustration last weekend at Atlanta -- where Keselowski was leading when his engine began to fail -- was evident. A team that opened the season by nearly winning the Daytona 500 despite being involved in two accidents has battled one hurdle after another: penalties at Texas and Dover, a misfiring engine at Fontana, a phantom vibration at Darlington, a dropped transmission in the All-Star Race, a slide into the frontstretch wall at Charlotte, a lost cylinder at Richmond in the spring, and on and on and on.
The No. 2 team found some footing in the late summer to give itself a chance, but the sorely-needed victory never came, and the margin remained thin. "We've left a lot more on the table than just 25 points," Keselowski said when asked about the long-term impact of the Texas penalty, which viewed in the context of the full season seems just one more nagging problem that's prevented the champ from getting up to full speed.
"These are scenarios that are just frankly outside your control. You combine those with one or two mistakes, and it all just stacks up really quickly," Keselowski said.
"I feel like we're a great team. ? We've had a lot of bad luck, and there have been some times we haven't executed. The shortfall of execution hasn't made up for the luck issues. I know ? we can turn a corner tomorrow and win the next five or six races. That's where we're at as a team. Obviously it hasn't happened, and it hasn't clicked that way. But that doesn't mean we're not capable of it. What's happened to us this year could quite honestly happen to any team."
This year, though, it's happened to his. Whether or makes the Chase or not Saturday night, Keselowski will go on.
"My career is dictated by much more than this weekend," he said. "I plan on running in this sport a very long time. I feel I have the people around me to be successful for a very long period of time."
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