This season, we have spent a whole lot of time talking about the Gibbs’ Toyotas (plus Martin Truex Jr., who let’s be honest, drives for the fifth Gibbs team). The five drivers – Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Truex – have combined for eight wins in 18 races this year.
Pretty impressive stuff; winning races in NASCAR is not an easy prospect these days and you can go from good to not-so-good pretty quickly – just ask the Hendrick Motor Sports guys.
But more impressive than what the Gibbs’ guys have done this year is what Brad Keselowski is doing.
If you asked most NASCAR fans who they thought were the 10-best drivers, you may get Keselowski in half of the responses. Some of that may have to do with the fact that some – OK, maybe a lot – of NASCAR fans just aren’t big fans of him. But look at the 2016 results and after his consecutive wins at Daytona two weeks ago and at Kentucky last week, the driver of the Miller Lite Ford leads the Sprint Cup Series with four wins on the year.
I would say he is hotter than the truck that caught fire in the Kentucky parking lot, but even that cliché is bad even for me.
I am actually writing this column because when I started looking at some data to do a mid-year recap, I saw that Keselowski had four wins in 2016 and I had to do a double take. I may also be guilty of underestimating Joey Logano’s teammate. We often forget that this is a guy who has won championships on NASCAR’s top-two series. He now has 21 wins in 251 Cup starts. In 2012, he won five races en route to his first Cup championship. In 2014, he won six and finished fifth. It’s been those odd-numbered years that may have kept him off the center of our radar screens. In 2013 and 2015, Keselowski only one race in each of those seasons.
What’s most remarkable about the driver of the No. 2’s season this year is how he was won races. The win at Kentucky showed just how smart of a racer he is. He did not have the best car, that honor probably went to Edwards, but Keselowski nursed his Ford home on fumes – little bit of skill, little bit of luck. Anyone can win with the fastest car; Keselowski is proving he can win without the fastest car.
Of course, true to form, Keselowski said a few things that surely didn’t endear him to many fans, but are in line with what we should expect from him.
“We’re professional racecar drivers,” said Keselowski. “It shouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t tonight. It was very, very difficult. You had to be certainly very, very smart.”
The implication being that he and his team are, in fact, smarter than everyone else.
The win at Kentucky was in direct contrast to how he won at Daytona when he used some bold moves to keep the field behind him on a late restart after dominating the race. His other two wins came at Las Vegas and Talladega. The win at Vegas came after a great strategy call from crew chief Paul Wolfe. He survived a race of attrition at Talladega to collect that win.
So if you’re scoring it home, that’s good strategy, good luck and good, fast cars. And those three things are the recipe for a championship season. The Chase is still eight races away and a lot of things can change in eight races, but once September rolls around, finding the right mix of those three things may mean championship No. 2 for Keselowski and his Penske Racing team.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column during the NASCAR season. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.