At a socially distanced gathering Wednesday, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski sought to inspire his crew with the rallying cry of “Why not us?” winning the title.
Shouldn’t the mantra be more aggressive and evocative?
Keselowski’s team is about to enter a 10-week stretch that likely will challenge them but could reward them should they make it to the Nov. 8 title race at Phoenix Raceway. The journey begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Keselowski said he chose the slogan to reflect the recent results for his team.
“I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team,” said the 2012 Cup champ who is seeded third in the 16-driver playoff field.
“We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire. I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover. I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of. Sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of.
“I think ‘Why not us?’ is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’ And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it. ‘Why not us’ is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.”
Keselowski said examining the matter that way can help a team evolve into a championship unit.
“What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”
Keselowski’s team is an intriguing option to counter Harvick, Hamlin and others in the NASCAR playoffs.
Keselowski won in May at Bristol, which will host the cutoff race in the first round. He scored a dominant victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track that shares qualities with Richmond and Phoenix. He finished second at Kansas, which hosts the opening race in the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.
Kansas is where Keselowski’s title hopes ended last year. He entered that race 20 points ahead of the first driver outside a spot to advance to the third round. The final restart doomed Keselowski. He lost six spots on the overtime restart. Keselowski finished three points behind Chase Elliott for the final spot to advance.
Despite that disappointment other years stand out to Keselowski in failing to win a second title.
“I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute. But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.”
So this year, it’s “Why not us?”
While other sayings might have more vigor, that slogan has a good history.
It was the rallying cry of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. They won their first World Series in 86 years that season.
2. Is this Chase Elliott’s time?
One of the key lessons about the NASCAR playoffs came last year with Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Elliott entered the Kansas race 24 points behind the Team Penske driver. Elliott beat Keselowski for the last transfer spot to the third round.
“It just kind of shows you that it’s not over until it’s over in a lot of those cases,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s playoffs would end in the third round after three finishes of 32nd or worse. He’s yet to advance to the championship race in four previous playoff appearances.
“I mean you can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet,” said Elliott, who is seeded fifth in the 16-driver playoff field. “I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four.”
Could this be Elliott’s year to make it to the title race? He’s having one of his best seasons with two wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.
“I feel like we’ve had some really good runs at the beginning of the year and then got into a little bit of a dip there over the last couple of months,” said Elliott, who also won the All-Star Race in July at Bristol. “And then I thought Dover was back competitive again. So, I think for me, I just look at a little bit of the inconsistency.
“I think we need to be more consistent across the board. I’m encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different style race tracks, which is awesome. So that definitely gives me confidence. But this deal is all about what has happened lately, what your performance has been up to this date, and what you have ahead to try to improve on and how much you need to improve.”
Playoff rookie Matt DiBenedetto calls Elliott his dark horse pick.
Elliott gets an early shot Sunday to show what he can do. He’ll start first in the Southern 500.
“I think even a bigger deal to have is that first pit box, which is super valuable,” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’re fast enough for it to matter and we can put that thing to use.”
3. Quite a streak
The last time Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road in a Cup race, it cost him a playoff win.
That was 2018 at Kansas Speedway.
Harvick has not been penalized for speeding on pit road in the last 66 races.
“I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them,” he said. “Something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that. So it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”
Bowman notes there are other challenges when going down pit road anywhere between 30-60 mph.
“A Cup car doesn’t drive smoothly at those speeds and the pit roads aren’t perfectly smooth,” he said. “The lights (on the dashboard noting the car’s speed on pit road) jump around a lot, basically. If you want the lights accurate, they jump around a lot. If you make them not jump around, they aren’t very accurate. So, just finding what works for you as a driver in that sense is really important.
“There’s a lot of factors to it. It’s really tough on a busy pit road trying not to run into people, trying to hit your pit box well. It’s definitely important, but it’s a big risk versus reward. Like if you have a green flag speeding penalty, it’s a huge, huge deficit for the rest of your day, especially at a speedway race. So, there are times to push and times not to push, for sure.”
Here is how many speeding penalties each playoff driver has this year:
5 — Austin Dillon
3 — Kyle Busch
0 — Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick
4. A new parking spot
When Joey Logano worked with crew chief Todd Gordon, Logano’s pit stalls often were near pit exit.
Among the changes Logano has experienced with new crew chief Paul Wolfe this season is a different philosophy in picking pits. Wolfe often prefers a stall near pit entrance. In six of the last eight races, Logano’s pit stall has been among the first stalls after pit entrance. For Sunday’s Southern 500, Logano’s pit stall will be the first one after pit entrance.
“That’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit,” Logano said. “Todd will always go furthest forward possible, and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend,” Logano said.
“So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end, and I didn’t want to drive by the stall.
“Now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections. That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different.
“Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game. It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think. There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back. It’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”
5. Future of single-car teams
Ty Dillon’s impassioned plea during a media session in August foreshadowed the news this week that owner Bob Germain was pondering his 2021 plans, including a potential sale of the team.
Germain Racing team has GEICO as a sponsor but the deal expires after this season. the team does not have a sponsor signed for next year.
Dillon told reporters that changes need to be made in the sport to help single-car teams.
“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible about of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”
Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team. Spire Motorsports, a single-car team, will take over that operation after this season.
Leavine has been critical about the business model for teams. Jeff Dickerson, co-owner of Spire Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that “charter values (for Cup teams) are increasing. There is a real market for these and there are several groups trying to obtain them. Both inside the sport and outside the sport.”
NASCAR has made rule changes in an effort to save teams money. The Next Gen car is designed to do that. The car’s debut was pushed back to 2022 because development was stalled for several months by the novel coronavirus.
“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said this week. “We want healthy teams.”
Phelps said those outside the sport have noticed what how the team model has changed.
“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”
Said Dillon: “I believe in our sport and the direction it is going. And, I know everyone has a mindset to make it better. But we just have to get there. We have to do everything that it takes. … “We can only get better as a sport if we all get better. We can’t just keep focusing on the big-end teams and the guys running up-front week in and week out. So, if we want the sport to thrive, it takes a lot of focus throughout the field.”