This weekend was quite eventful as the face of the chase changed unexpectedly and a new face appears on the Nationwide side of the NASCAR schedule.
Brad Keselowski brought home the Nationwide cup this weekend with a third place finish at Texas. This is a first time championship at this level for Keselowski as well as for his team owner Roger Penske here in NASCAR. Although Penske has won titles in Indy Car and other racing series this is the first NASCAR title that has been brought into his stables. Keselowski was all smiles as he quipped to the media about how hard it is to find a gift for his boss. “It’s hard to give a billionaire something,” cracked Keselowski, who hails from Michigan just like his boss. “What do you get this guy? Here’s a trophy. It’s pretty cool.”
So what did the boss have to say about the championship win? “At the end of the day, when you think about being in the Winner’s Circle at Indy and winning that championship, this is right up there with it,” Penske said as Keselowski’s team posed for photos with the Nationwide trophy “… We’ve been in NASCAR a long, long time, and to win a championship, it’s tough. I’ve sat in New York so any times and seen Hendrick and those boys sit up on the stage. I guess this is the first step. To me, it’s like winning the first Indy 500, I’d have to say.”
Texas was not done shelling out surprises yet though.Ã‚Â Jimmie Johnson’s 5th consecutive title hopes have started to show a little bit of tarnish as Denny Hamlin took the win and the points lead at the AAA Texas 500.Ã‚Â Although Jimmie is down he is certainly not out of the chase.Ã‚Â Trailing Hamlin by 33 points is far from an insurmountable obstacle, regardless of having come into the last 3 chases with a triple digit lead Johnson and Knaus know their tracks as well as their oponents and are more than capable of pulling this thing off.
“The past four years, we’ve been in a different position,” Johnson said. “I’ve lost plenty of championships in the past, and this is racing, and it doesn’t come easy, and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend.
“I can promise you this — I am trying as hard as I can. I know my team is. We’re doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we’re going to work to get back on top.”
Hamlin on the other hand is not prepared to lay back now that he is in the lead, in fact he promises to keep racing aggressively.
“I’m going to race Phoenix as if I’m 33 behind, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said. “There’s no comfortable margin going into Homestead, because anything can happen. So for me — Phoenix being an up-and-down race track for me — I’ve got to really be focused on practice day to get what I need, to give (crew chief) Mike Ford the information that I need — just 100 percent stay focused is all I can do.
“But like I say, I’m not going to be conservative having the lead. I’m going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead. So that’s pretty much my mind-set.”
Kevin Harvick made up ground on Johnson but lost ground on the overall points lead with his 6th place finish.Ã‚Â He now trails Johnson by 26 points and is 59 points out of first place and with 2 races still to go there’s plenty of time to make it to the front.Ã‚Â Starting out in 26th he had steadily made his way towards the front until brushing the wall twice late in the race.
“I think we’re in big trouble,” he told crew chief Gil Martin.
“He didn’t brush it.Ã‚Â He knocked it down,” Martin said. “It is what it is. We lucked out right there. We got to come in, put two tires on, drug a lot of people in with us, and at least we gained spots on the 48 . The 11 got away from us, obviously, right there. I think before that, the 11 had a set of tires like we did, because they were loose and fell back, and we were blasting fast. It happens, so what do you do?”
“I’m not putting any fault on him, because he’s the same guy who for 320-something laps was driving his guts out and had it up front,” Martin said. “So he’ll be the same guy that wins this thing.”
“It was actually a pretty mellow day. We had a good car,” Harvick said. “I didn’t think we’d be anywhere in the hunt, to tell you the truth, after practice, and they did a great job getting the car ready. When it got dark, our [car], we just got really loose and we got in the wall, twice actually. They fixed that and everything went as good as it could.”
Next weeks race at Phoenix will give us a much better idea about how it is all going to play out but with only 59 points separating the first 3 players in this game it all about who can remain calm under pressure and deal with the cards that fall into their hand as the final 2 races of the season play out.