CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Brad Keselowski held serve through the first half of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, due in part to a smart strategy with his Penske Racing team.
It just didn't work last week.
Keselowski's lead in the standings was sliced in half when he ran out of gas at Charlotte Motor Speedway 59 laps from the finish of a race that was a chess match for crew chiefs at the drop of the green flag. He had dominated the race, but had to settle for a disappointing 11th-place finish.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe immediately put the miscalculation behind them and got ready for Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday's race and Round 6 of the 10-race Chase.
"I know I speak for everyone ... when I say we can't wait to get to Kansas to prove that our finish at Charlotte was an anomaly, a blip on the radar," Keselowski said.
He goes to Kansas with a slight advantage over the competition: Keselowski got two days of track time on the repaved surface during an August tire test. The track opened Wednesday to the entire Sprint Cup Series for a two-day test, but Keselowski is one of only eight drivers who has already been there.
Wolfe, who guided Keselowski to his first career Cup win last season at Kansas, already has an idea of what to expect.
"We definitely learned a lot about the new surface at Kansas when we did the tire test in August, so we should be able to roll of the truck with some decent speed," Wolfe said. "It's going to be a very fast place, for sure. I don't think many people are going to venture outside the groove, so passing may be difficult for the first couple of races.
"That means qualifying will be very important and that's something we will work on during the practice sessions. We've shown speed in our cars throughout the Chase and I expect that to carry over to what is, basically, a brand new racetrack at Kansas."
Wolfe had been spot-on until Charlotte, which was certainly an aberration to the strategy — sprinkled with luck — that's worked for Keselowski over the past three months. Very little has backfired — Keselowski got a win in the Chase opener at Chicago and again in a fuel mileage race at Dover. He arrived in Charlotte with a 14-point lead in the standings over five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
Denny Hamlin, who sits third in the standings, believes luck has played a significant part in making the Penske team look good so far this Chase.
"They've just been getting the right breaks at the right time," Hamlin said. "They've been fortunate that the cautions haven't fallen where it's hurt them. Every time I do that, I get that caution, and it just kills us. I think they've looked at race histories and done a good job with their strategy, and that's part of racing as much as speed is nowadays. They've done the best job at the strategy."
Up until Charlotte, when Keselowski stayed out one lap too long. Even worse, his tank ran dry just as he passed the entrance to pit road, so he had to coast for an entire lap, costing him even more time. Keselowski conceded after it "was the worst-case scenario. That's part of the breaks."
Indeed, it was at minimum a seven-point swing in the standings. Although Keselowski led a race-high 139 laps, eventual winner Clint Bowyer's fuel strategy still may have beaten him, so it's more accurate to assume he would have at least finished fourth.
His 11th-place finish allowed Johnson, who finished third, to slice his deficit to seven points. And Hamlin, who finished second, is now 15 points back from Keselowski.
Wolfe, for his part, said nothing will change with the No. 2 team going forward.
"What got us to this point is being aggressive with our strategy," Wolfe said. "We aren't going to change that approach as we run through the Chase. And 90 percent of time, it works out for us, and we get the finishes we want."
Keselowski vowed not to back down to protect his lead.
"This team, we're not going to put the prevent defense out there," Keselowski said. "We're going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you're going to miss, and they're going to get a big play out of it. We have hit them a lot, that's why we're in the points lead, and we're going to keep after it."