Have two-straight wins positioned Brad Keselowski as the strongest challenger to the 'Big Three?'

If you wanted a test case on the existence of momentum in auto racing, you can do far worse than Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski’s win Monday in the Brickyard 400 made him the first driver to win the final two races of the regular season since Jimmie Johnson in 2008. He also became just the fourth driver in Cup Series history to win both the Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season. The two wins vaulted Keselowski to fourth in the points standings as the Cup Series playoffs begin on Sunday at Las Vegas.

If you believe in the existence and significance of momentum, then Keselowski’s last two weeks are setting himself up for a championship run. After all, Johnson won the title when he won those last two races of the regular season.

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If you don’t think momentum exists or think it’s severely overrated you’ll point to the fact that Keselowski had five finishes outside the top 15 in five of the seven races preceding his two wins. And that Martin Truex Jr. has finished outside the top 10 in each of the last four races (including a last-place finish at Indianapolis) and no one is discounting his chances at making the final round of the playoffs because of it.

“Momentum is tricky because I think it can really rope people in and that’s a tough thing for a team because your competition level is always changing,” Keselowski told Yahoo Sports during a Kansas Speedway appearance Wednesday. “Competition is always getting better and momentum and those words are kind of dangerous for any team unit because you fall into complacency. So I really don’t like to use them.”

“That said, to me, they signify kind of a recharge of the batteries for a team in a tough season which — the NASCAR season being as long as it is — has its peaks and its valleys for anyone no matter what level of success you’re having. And being able to recharge your batteries can be really critical for this important 10-week stretch we’re facing.”

‘It feels right to be fourth’

Keselowski’s two wins came in races where he didn’t necessarily have the fastest car. His team was the fastest on pit road during the final caution flag pit stops of the race at Darlington and he beat Kyle Larson off pit road before holding Larson and others off in the race toward the checkered flag.

At Indianapolis, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe played the long game when it came to pit strategy and Keselowski was one of the last cars to pit under green in the race’s final stage. He gave up the lead on lap 143 to head to pit road for his final stop of the day and a caution came out for debris on lap 144. The ensuing shuffle under the caution put Keselowski into the top 10. With fresher tires than the cars ahead of him, Keselowski sliced through the field, got another restart, and passed Denny Hamlin with less than two laps to go for the win.

The victory put Keselowski in fourth in the points standings, 31 points behind leaders Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Truex is in third, meaning the top four drivers in the points standings as the playoffs begin are the same four drivers who raced for the championship at Homestead in 2017.

“I felt like off the first 26 races there have been times where we’ve been the fourth-best team,” Keselowski said. “There are times when I’ve felt that we’ve been an 8th-10th place team. We’ve kind of bounced back and forth and not had a lot of consistency there. And certainly being on the upswing of things it feels right to be fourth.”

Consistency will be key, especially in the first couple rounds of the playoffs. Just ask Kyle Larson. Larson finished 10th and 13th in the first two races of the second round in 2017 and entered the third and final race of the round third in the points standings. His engine blew up at Kansas and he finished 39th. He missed the third round.

“Without a doubt you have to points race in this thing,” Keselowski said. “If you can win you’ve gotta win but reality is you’re better served to have three 10th-place finishes than two seconds and a 30th. And then the stage points kind of convolutes that a little bit more. With all that in mind, being strong, being consistent, not wrecking, not breaking down, that’s extremely critical.”

Being outspoken about competition in 2017 a ‘success’

Toyota teams combined to win eight of the 10 races in the playoffs in 2017 and won 16 of the season’s 36 races overall. After Truex won at Homestead to win the championship, Keselowski made more pointed comments about NASCAR’s inspection system and the advantage that Toyota’s new car had.

He had been outspoken about the advantages Toyota had with its new car all season long and said in November that he felt like the 2017 Cup Series season was a bit like Formula 1 where a one car model had a season-long advantage over everyone else.

NASCAR changed its inspection process before the 2018 season from a laser-based system to a camera-based one and teams had an entire offseason to figure out how to catch up to Toyota. While Toyota drivers Truex and Busch have combined to win 10 of the first 26 races in 2018, Keselowski, Harvick and Clint Bowyer have combined to win 11. Ford drivers are on a four-race win streak and Toyota’s last win came on July 29.

Keselowski got some flack for what he said throughout the course of 2017. But he believes they worked on multiple fronts. Ford will race a new car of its own next season.

“I know it’s maybe a little controversial but I think those comments were a huge success. Because at the end of the day, although NASCAR was already considering implementing the [new inspection system] I think it created an internal push to solidify it and to make sure it was committed to for 2018. Along with solidifying the need within Ford Motor Company to push the Ford Mustang over the edge and get it into contention for 2019; or submittal at least, for contention in 2019.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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