WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — As the reigning Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski’s photo holding the coveted series trophy is on the cover of the media guide NASCAR hands out at races. The venues change, the photo doesn’t, a constant reminder of a great season.
With four races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup title begins, Keselowski is back in position to defend, and that has to make team owner Roger Penske awfully happy.
Keselowski finished second on Sunday to Kyle Busch on the road course at Watkins Glen International to move into eighth place in the points. It was Keselowski’s best finish of the season. It could have been better, but he passed up a chance on the final lap to knock Busch out of the way and nab a crucial victory.
“In my mind, points are great when you’re in the Chase,” Keselowski said.
“Before that, to me it’s about wins, even if you don’t end up in the top 20. I’d rather be a wild card with four or five wins than be the guy in the Chase with zero wins.”
The top 10 drivers in the points standings automatically qualify for the 10-race Chase, which begins next month after Richmond. There also are two wild cards, which go to the drivers from 11th to 20th in points who have the most wins. In the event of a tie in wins, points decide the spots. Right now, Kasey Kahne in 12th with two victories and Ryan Newman in 14th has one victory. They would be in if the Chase started today.
Then there’s Newman’s boss, Tony Stewart, who missed Sunday’s race with a broken right leg and is out indefinitely. He was 11th before Sunday with one victory but dropped to 17th after missing the first race of his Cup career. It’s possible he could return and make a miraculous comeback, though that’s not likely.
Keselowski is one of three winless drivers in the top 10 and the most vulnerable. Clint Bowyer is firmly entrenched in second and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sixth, nearly a full race in points (36) ahead of Keselowski.
So, what gives? Why Mr. Nice Guy?
Remember, this is the driver who sent Carl Edwards flying at the Talladega finish line while traveling nearly 200 mph to notch his first Sprint Cup victory. Small wonder Edwards’ boss, Jack Roush, wouldn’t answer a question about Keselowski two years ago at The Glen, when the driver of Penske’s blue No. 2 was nursing a broken ankle and still driving at a high level.
And it wasn’t so long ago that Keselowski bad-mouthed Busch over the public address system at Bristol after an altercation. There was no love lost there.
Then there was last year at The Glen, when Keselowski bumped Busch out of the way on the final lap as they slid around a track surface coated with oil from a blown engine. Busch had what appeared to be a victory snatched away, and though he recovered quickly to finish seventh, in the end that race cost him a berth in the Chase. He was beaten for the last spot by Jeff Gordon in the final laps at Richmond.
“It was a really, really sticky situation last year to win here, and it wasn’t all Brad’s fault. There was oil on the track,” Busch said. “But Brad’s the one that spun us out. I figured maybe he could do some of the same again, but he kept it clean.”
Keselowski did pull up tight to the bumper of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota on the final lap and challenged him all the way to the finish line. There was no bump, though, which was surprising considering the stakes.
“I wanted to win the race. We had a shot at it,” Keselowski said. “I could have definitely dumped Kyle and won the race. I didn’t want to do that. There’s racing and wrecking. Those are two different things.
“Everybody defines them a little differently, and I guess that’s the code you live your life by,” said Keselowski, whose “Bad Brad” moniker seems a distant memory. “Me? I define last year as racing and some people would define that as wrecking. If I was gonna take out Kyle, it would have been wrecking in my mind, and there’s a distinct difference.
“It doesn’t mean there isn’t temptation,” Keselowski said. “But there’s a level of respect and a code of honor that you have to have as a man.”
And don’t forget Bristol is in two weeks and the defending champion might need a favor.