Consistency is a clearer path forward for some contenders after Charlotte chaos

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CHARLOTTE – As the task of reaching the next round of the NASCAR playoffs got much rockier for five drivers Sunday, it got much easier for the seven drivers ranked ahead.

How much easier?

“If we could run top 10 the next two races, I’d say it’s an easy transfer,” Brad Keselowski told a small group of reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The Team Penske driver is ranked fourth in the standings, 25 points ahead of the ninth-place cutoff after the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin, who finished 30th with an engine failure, is ranked in the eighth-place transfer spot, 19 points behind Martin Truex Jr. But Hamlin is only three points ahead of Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, six in front of Joey Logano and eight ahead of Kevin Harvick.

Keselowski believes the four drivers eliminated after the next two races at Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway will come from those five because the top seven (aside from Jimmie Johnson, who is locked in with a win) can play it safe.

“I think it drastically changes the dynamic,” Keselowski said. “There’s really two ways to (advance), through consistency and winning. You look at the simple math, there are four cars that are going to be eliminated, and five cars in really rough shape that aren’t going to have the opportunity to be consistent and make their way in, so they’re pigeon-holed into the other half of the equation.

“Being one of the cars that’s in between and had a pretty good point gap, that all but guarantees that you can use consistency to get through this round. That certainly changes mindsets. A car with any gap is going to lay up at Kansas and try really hard not to put yourself in that situation. Certainly there are some situations you can’t avoid. The reality, is if you have a pretty good gap, you’re probably going to take a log off the fire.”

In the third year of the restructured Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring eliminations and points resets, Keselowski said drivers are becoming more cognizant of the risk-reward ratio. The 2012 champion still shakes his head at his run-in with Jeff Gordon while battling to take a lead at Texas Motor Speedway. Keselowski needed a win while Gordon could have been safe with a top five.

They collided, and Gordon suffered a cut tire that effectively eliminated him the following race at Phoenix.

“I knew he didn’t have to win,” Keselowski said. “All he had to do was run like fourth. Probably 10th. When I made the move, I was shocked that he didn’t know the situation. How do you not know the situation? I’m behind you with newer tires, you’re not getting a good restart. All you need to do is run fifth. Know the situation.”

Crew chiefs and drivers seem much more attuned this season to the importance of points, which frequently were emphasized during the first round.

“The first year certainly demonstrated that there was less recognition to the situational awareness that defines those moments,” Keselowski said. “When you get into years two and three, and everybody learns the format, everybody is like, ‘Oh, I understand. This is what I need to do.’”

That decreases the likelihood of repeating last year’s finish at Kansas, where Joey Logano, who already was guaranteed to advance, spun Matt Kenseth, who was in desperate need of a win, from the lead in the closing laps.

After being eliminated, Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano out of the lead at Martinsville Speedway to open the next round.

Keselowski expects more secure title contenders will yield more easily to those who are desperate.

“That’s definitely happening, yes,” he said. “And will continue to happen with this format. Without a doubt. Everyone saw what happened with Joey, and they’re not going to do that to themselves.

“It’s like basketball. You want to make sure you don’t have a bunch of fouls and aren’t worn out when the fourth quarter comes, because it seems like those are always five-point games in the fourth quarter, so don’t be in the spot to foul out. Make sure you’ve got your legs beneath you.”