0

Brad Keselowski has a leg up as Chase approaches

HAMPTON -- Brad Keselowski knows these things can't be explained. For some reason, his car just seems faster than any other machine on the track. Every move he makes is the right one, even though he's been driving with a sore left ankle.

This much he does know: When you get on a roll like this, you want to ride it as long as you can.

Keselowski would love to keep it going right through the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

"It's been an amazing run," he said at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he's preparing for today's next-to-last event before NASCAR's 10-race playoff begins. "We'll just ride the wave and hopefully it works out for us."

Keselowski has won two of the last four races -- and finished second and third in the others. His performance over the last month has virtually locked up at least a wild card in the NASCAR playoff, and it's even more amazing since he's done all this after breaking his left ankle during a road course practice.

Some wonder if he's been able to step up his performance in the top series because he's skipped the last four Nationwide races, giving his injured ankle more time to heal.

Keselowski clearly isn't buying that theory. He'll return to his Nationwide car for the race Saturday night after putting in 66 laps of practice with his Cup team in the No. 2 Dodge.

"I wish I could pinpoint what it is," Keselowski said. "I have a hard time believing that having a broken foot makes you a better race car driver. I just think it's the team coming together and clicking as one. I'm proud to be part of that."

The 27-year-old is clearly one of NASCAR's rising stars in just his second full-time year on the circuit. He's shown plenty of bravado, earning the nickname "Bad Brad" for his no-holds-barred driving style. He's had several frightening run-ins with Carl Edwards and tussled with current Cup points leader Kyle Busch in a Nationwide race last summer.

This season, he's earned plenty of respect for not only his success on the track, but the way he carried on after the practice crash at Road Atlanta. He smashed into a wall at an estimated 100 mph when his brakes failed, a blow that was harder than most because it wasn't an energy-absorbing barrier.

He came back four days later for a gutty win at Pocono. Keselowski was edged out by Marcus Ambrose for a second straight win at Watkins Glen, took third at Michigan and won again last week on the high-banked bull ring at Bristol.

Keselowski has climbed 10 spots in the standings, putting him just outside the top 10 and a guaranteed shot at the championship. But, with three wins on the year, Keselowski is all but assured of claiming one of two wild cards, which go to the drivers from 11th to 20th with the most victories.

"It always works in cycles," he said. "You try your best to capitalize when you're on top of the cycle. You try your best to minimize the amount of time when you're on bottom of the cycle. When you have success, you can try and learn and try and repeat it and try to minimize the bad part of it. We're on top of the cycle right now. It can very easily turn around and put us at the bottom of the cycle when it counts in the Chase."

While Keselowski is feeling good about his position, these next two races will provide plenty of nail-biting moments for those in more tenuous spots.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are ninth and 10th in the standings, but neither has a win this season and could get knocked out by someone who does if they struggle Sunday and next weekend at Richmond. Clint Bowyer is 12th in the points but doesn't have a win. So Denny Hamlin -- one spot behind and a winner at Michigan -- would claim the other wild card if things stay as they are.

And don't forget Paul Menard, David Ragan and Ambrose. All are far behind in the points, ranking 20th, 21st and 22nd. Still, each has won a race and could push his way into the Chase by taking another checkered flag.

"If one of those guys sneaks up and gets a win the next two weeks, we could be out," Hamlin said.

Six drivers already have clinched playoff spots, including five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. He'll use these next two weeks to set himself up for a run at another title.

"It takes a little bit of pressure off," Johnson said. "But there are still bonus points available and we still want to have as much momentum as possible rolling into the Chase. We're somewhat relaxed, but at the same time we know we need to go out there and do our jobs this weekend."

While Keselowski is the hot driver at the moment, Johnson isn't conceding the Cup to anyone.

"They've been qualifying well. They've been winning races. It's obvious. Absolutely, they are doing the right things," he said. "That momentum is very, very helpful for the driver, for the team. It helps build confidence. Everything is going in the right direction."

Then again, "the final 10 is its own environment, its own world," Johnson quickly added. "You start over, and when you start over, it's a whole new world. Everybody is a threat at that point."