FORT WORTH, Texas – The mood was grim in pit stall No. 30, where the runner-up was parked late Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway.
Glum looks and furrowed brows were plastered on the Team Penske crew members gathered around the No. 2 Ford, keeping a respectful distance as their driver spent several minutes apparently trying to diagnose what inexplicably went awry in the final 18 green-flag laps that kept his car from victory lane.
Brad Keselowski studied the curvature of the fenders. He eyeballed the quarter-panels for oddities. He debriefed with crew chief Paul Wolfe.
Finally, Keselowski knelt on the pavement and crawled underneath the car in a last attempt at unearthing any clues as to how the AAA Texas 500 slipped from his grasp after the most dominant performance in the 1.5-mile oval’s 18-year history, somehow snatched away by Jimmie Johnson for the final four laps.
“Yeah, I’m not sure exactly how to feel about it at the moment,” Keselowski said. “(Johnson) had so much speed them last 10 laps. As I sit right now, maybe I’ll change my mind. I don’t know what I would have done differently or could have done differently.”
It was hard to expect him to have many answers after a second consecutive Sprint Cup race left the Penske organization wrestling with questions that could linger well beyond a 2015 season currently hanging in the balance.
If not for unexpectedly unfortunate – and mildly unbelievable — circumstances turning on a dime at Martinsville Speedway and Texas, Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano easily could have been locked into racing for the championship in the Nov. 22 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Instead, there is a strong likelihood neither will advance, and it’s virtually implausible that both can.
Logano, who leads the circuit with six victories, can reach Miami as a championship contender only via a victory at Phoenix International Raceway. Keselowski could advance via the standings, but he still is 19 points behind the provisional cutoff line (occupied by Martin Truex Jr.).
If Logano were to win Phoenix and Keselowski finish second, it still would take major stumbles by some combination of Truex, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards to clear a path for a Penske car to join Jeff Gordon in the title round.
And given Harvick’s recent Phoenix track record – four straight wins and five in six races – and it’s likely everyone already is playing for second but the No. 4 Chevrolet anyway.
“Certainly we’d like to get both cars in at Phoenix,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think that’s impossible, but it doesn’t look favorable. We’ll go there and do our best to make it happen.”
But he already had done that to a dizzying degree at Texas.
For a record 312 of 334 laps, Keselowski paced the field after starting from the pole position. Considering it was his fifth second-place finish since his lone win at Auto Club Speedway in March, he showed remarkable composure in the aftermath. On the way to the media center for a lengthy postrace news conference, he signed an autograph for a fan and politely requested a ballcap from a PR handler.
It figures to get much tougher to withstand the pressure next week at Phoenix, particularly given that any success by Keselowski or Logano assuredly will come at a teammate’s expense.
Johnson is familiar with how it can wear on a team from his many championship battles with Hendrick Motorsports stablemate Jeff Gordon.
“Racing teammates is tough,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing easy about it. The way those two cars have become so successful and fast is the way they’ve worked together. I’m sure (team owner) Roger (Penske) is going to continue to preach that. The only way one of them will have a shot at Phoenix to advance is if they continue to work together.
“A good problem to have would be both cars running up front 1‑2. But it’s not easy. If you really are duking it out for the win, you’re supposed to leave your teammate an extra inch or two. Championship’s on the line, your career is on the line. It will be interesting to see how that goes, how everybody handles the pressure.”
Team Penske handled it well with a stiff upper lip Sunday, particularly Keselowski after what certainly ranked among the most demoralizing defeats of his career. The transcript to his postrace news conference read like the cross-examination of a hostile witness, but it belied a pleasant and unshakably constructive demeanor.
“We know we need to win the next two to win the championship,” Keselowski said. “The good news is we have that opportunity. That’s the way I look at it.”
Ditto for Logano, who was 45 laps from a win at Martinsville last week before being intentionally wrecked by Matt Kenseth. His No. 22 team gracefully put aside those distractions during the week (Logano, 25, eloquently answered a barrage of questions about driver code Friday) and seemed poised for a run at victory lane after qualifying fourth.
But a blown left-rear tire 10 laps into Sunday’s race ruined Logano’s day before it hardly began and left him having to find positives in pit stops that were swift despite finishing 66 laps down in 40th.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches,” he said. “This team is strong. We didn’t take any wind out of our sails today, and we showed how fast this thing was even after we crashed. I am very proud of our team.”
“I feel great about our chances at Phoenix. We’re not out of this thing still.”
Next week, though, either he or his teammate – and quite likely both – will be out.
And for a third consecutive week, Team Penske will be mired in another agonizing hunt of trying to diagnose how it’s all gone wrong.