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Reigning Cup champ Keselowski enters 'worried zone'

The last time a reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion failed to qualify for the following season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was in 2006 when Tony Stewart failed to do so.

With only two races remaining before the Chase field is set at Richmond, 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski could face a similar fate.

As the series heads to Atlanta for Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500, Keselowski finds himself in two undesirable positions — outside the top 10 in the standings that guarantees automatic entry into the postseason and outside the Wild Card picture sans a win.

“I’m not going to be out of the worried zone unless I make it (the Chase) or it’s over,” Keselowski said recently.

Keselowski, who will make his 150th NASCAR Sprint Cup start this weekend, is 11th in the points. He’s four points behind teammate Joey Logano, who has never qualified for the Chase, but is riding a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes. During the most recent offseason, Keselowski played a large role in bringing the 23-year-old driver to Penske Racing.

A win at Atlanta for Keselowski would probably push him into the top 10, but likely at the expense of Logano. If Keselowski wins at Atlanta and then falls out of the top 10 after a poor showing in Richmond, the win could possibly be enough for him to capture a Wild Card spot, as long as he stays ahead of two drivers currently ranked between 11th and 20th in the standings with a win — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Of course, a lot can happen over the course of two races where drivers with wins at the tail end of the top 10 could fall out of the automatic qualifying positions and become a player for the two Wild Card spots.

“Well, we aren’t in a very enviable position (in the points standings) but we have two good tracks coming up for us,” said Keselowski, who won five races in 2012 on his way to winning his first Sprint Cup title but has yet to visit Victory Lane this season.

“We’ve tested at both Atlanta and Richmond, both with very positive results,” Keselowski said. “We’re only four points outside of the top 10 — which is very doable — but we can’t have any issues.”

Through the first 24 races of 2013, he has compiled seven top fives and 11 top 10s to go along with one pole. His best finish of the season was second at Watkins Glen, where he’s finished runner-up three straight years. On the flipside, he’s finished 20th or worse in nine races.

In four series starts at Atlanta, Keselowski’s best finish is third, which came in last year’s race. “I haven’t won yet at Atlanta, but I think we can do that this weekend,” he said. “If we can, everything will work itself out.”

Larson builds steam in rookie race

Kyle Larson is quietly putting together a solid rookie season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Although Larson is currently eighth in the championship standings, he continues to add to his rookie lead over Alex Bowman. After placing fifth in the Wednesday night Bristol race, Larson extended his lead to 67 points.

The Great Clips/Grit Chips 300 today in Atlanta (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) will be a test for both rookies as neither of them have ever competed at the 1.54-mile track in the series. Larson, however, did finish sixth there last season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“I’m excited to get back to Atlanta,” Larson said. “It’s always fun when you can do some Saturday night racing. I’ve never raced at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a Nationwide Series car, but I did race in the truck series there last season, so I feel like my team and I will be ready for the race.”

For Larson, how he performs today could determine if he should be considered a dark-horse candidate to make a run at the championship. Regardless of whether he can make a serious run at the title in his rookie campaign, a top-five or top-10 finish should move him up a spot or two in the standings and further tighten his grasp on the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race.

Through the first 23 races, Larson has compiled six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up showings at Bristol in March and Michigan in June. Over the last 15 races, he has 14 top-15 finishes with a 30th-place finish at Watkins Glen earlier this month being the only hiccup.

“Kyle has impressed me all season so I have no doubt he can go out and contend in his first Nationwide Series race at Atlanta,” said Trent Owens, Larson’s crew chief of the No. 32 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet.