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Keselowski comfortable making calls

Think Brad Keselowski's two key pit calls in the last two races were particularly unusual for a driver? Or particularly bold?

Listen: Dale Earnhardt once sat in his pits holding up four fingers and refusing to leave until his crew changed all four tires, not just two.

Bobby Allison once ordered his crew chief to put on illegal tires for a finish, and was resisted with the demand that Allison pay the fine if they were caught. He agreed to pay the fine and repeated the order.

Even back when Jeff Gordon was so inexperienced he was called Wonder Boy, and crew chief Ray Evernham often sounded like a stern schoolmaster on the radio, there were times Evernham changed his calls according to Gordon's wishes.

"Because ultimately," says Evernham, now an ESPN analyst, "the guy in the seat knows what's going on."

Junior Johnson, the 81-year-old living legend who sat atop Jimmie Johnson's pit box Sunday at Texas as a guest of the 48 team, won 139 races and six Cup championships as a car owner with a stellar list of drivers: LeeRoy Yarbrough, Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, on and on…

Did Junior ever, I asked him this week, let a driver make a pit call?

"No!" he scoffed. "No."

His reasoning was that "the guy driving the car doesn't see the tires and stuff [data]," he said. "I don't think it's right for a driver to make a call."

There has been much discussion of Keselowski's making two calls from the seat, rather than crew chief Paul Wolfe from the pit box, the last two races.

At Martinsville, Keselowski chose to stay out on worn tires to take the lead while all but one other car pitted. Jimmie Johnson, on fresh tires, quickly passed him to take the lead for keeps, and Keselowski had to hold on for a sixth-place finish.

At Texas, Keselowski chose to take two tires in order to come out of the pits in the lead for the final duel with Jimmie Johnson, who'd taken four tires under orders from crew chief Chad Knaus. Keselowski held off Johnson for two restarts, but Johnson roared past on the final restart to win.

Keselowski said this week during a teleconference that he stands by those calls, and indeed, "I stand by all the calls we've made throughout the Chase" in his and Wolfe's battle for the championship with Johnson and Knaus.

Down through the decades in NASCAR, how much say the driver had in pit strategy has always depended on the relationships between drivers and crew chiefs.

"Through my career I did it some, and I depended on the people, the crew chief or whoever, on a lot of other occasions," Allison said this week. "I've seen it off and on with a lot of people. I've seen drivers make good decisions and I've seen drivers make bad decisions."

Here's a classic bad one.

Andy Petree, now an ESPN analyst, was crew chief for Earnhardt in 1995. For the night race at Bristol, "We had a really good car, which was normal there with him," Petree recalled.

"But he'd gotten into a couple of skirmishes. He'd gotten into one with Rusty [Wallace], wrecked him early, and they put us in the back. They penalized us. So we're having to come back from that, and I think maybe even got penalized for something else.

"We'd finally driven up to some [decent] position," Petree continued, "and that was the time that I wanted to do right sides. I called for them. And he was not on board. At Bristol, you just don't have time to talk about it.

"I said, 'Two, two, two!' and he comes down the pit road yapping about wanting four. I'm the tire changer, so by this point I'm over the wall. And I change right sides and I come back across to the left side so he could go.

"And he looks through the windshield and he's holding up four fingers. And he wouldn't leave. I've never been so furious in my life. I just kneeled down and changed the left side, because the jack man had come around.

"So now we're doing four, and we're sitting there screwing around while he's holding up four fingers. So we start at the back again.

"Well, lo and behold, they have a wreck in front of us, which we would have been in front of if we'd been on two tires. We get in the wreck, knock a hole in the oil cooler. Oh! What a mess! Now, here I am, lying under the car, hot oil running down my sleeves … we're trying to cap this oil cooler off and fix the front end …

"We started in the back again, and that's when he came up there and almost got back to the lead and wrecked [Terry] Labonte coming to the line."

To clarify, this was the time Earnhardt knocked Labonte across the finish line so that Labonte won sliding backwards, and not the time in 1999 when Earnhardt won the race himself by wrecking Labonte on the last lap.

Earnhardt didn't stand by his '95 call for very long.

"He realized he'd made a big mistake by not listening to me," Petree said. "He admitted it right after we finally got the oil cooler fixed. He was real humble. He came on the radio and said, 'I'll listen to you next time.' He knew I was so mad I could kill him."

Allison still stands by a call he made from the seat some three decades ago, during the waning laps of a race at Nashville. It was against the rules to put left-side tires on the right side, but Allison was convinced that Darrell Waltrip's team had already done that.

"That was the only way he could come from where he was running to beat me like he was beating me," Allison recalled. So he ordered his crew chief, Waddell Wilson, to put left-sides on the right of their car.

Wilson resisted, but Allison persisted. Wilson relented, but Allison recalled, "He said, 'If we get caught, you pay the fine.' I said, 'I'll pay the fine. Just do it.'"

They did, but Waltrip "beat me by about a foot to the finish line and got the win."

Afterward, Waltrip was not penalized, but an inspector "fined me $1,000 a tire," Allison said.

Petree concurs with how much leeway Wolfe gives Keselowski. "This is a really smart driver," Petree said. "Brad's one of those guys who can think while he's competing out there. That's another unusual thing. A lot of drivers just need that total focus on what they're doing, and ,'OK, you handle the strategy, I'm just gonna drive as hard as I can.'

"He's one of those unique guys who can think and compete," Petree continued. "So they use that strength."

By contrast, in the 48 pits, Knaus rules -- he listens to Johnson, but ultimately, Knaus rules.

"There's got to be a leader, and there's got to be support," Evernham said. "Brad is strong enough that Paul either agrees or he's OK with it and knows he'll work around it. …

"I think clearly, Chad runs the 48 team," Evernham continued. "And Jimmie is -- I don't want to say support, but Jimmie is the star player. I think Brad more or less leads the deal, and Paul is the star player in support."

But Junior Johnson, after sitting on the 48 pit box last Sunday and paying close attention to the radio traffic, by no means considers that team a dictatorship.

"Them two guys is really close -- they trust each other," Junior said. "I tell you one thing, them two boys has got it going. I haven't heard anybody on the radio any smarter than them two, Jimmie and Chad. They don't leave one thing laying on the table."

If you're going to let a driver make calls from the seat, Junior said, then Martinsville "was his [Keselowski's] best call, because at that place, it's so hard to pass. He'd have been in the back if he'd got four tires."

But Keselowski's late call Sunday to take two tires while the 48 took four "is what beat him down there at Texas," Junior said.

Petree and Evernham split on which of Keselowski's calls was most effective. Petree agreed with Junior that Martinsville worked and Texas didn't, while Evernham took the opposite view.

At Martinsville, "He made the right call," Petree said. At Texas, "I think he cost himself the win."

There's no way, Petree reasoned, that Keselowski could have known that so many cars behind him would pit so late at Martinsville, leaving Johnson on fresh tires breathing down Keselowski's neck for the final sprint.

"There were what, 18, 19, 20 cars on the lead lap at Martinsville?" Petree said. "And two stayed out [Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.] with 20 laps to go? Only two?"

It was their massive mistake, not Keselowski's , Petree figured.

"These are people that are pitting and just giving away any hope of having a better finish than what they were racing to at that point. These guys are running 16th, 17th, 18th, and they pitted. Why would you do that?"

For Keselowski to have looked brilliant at Martinsville, "He needed only four guys to stay out, and he wins that race, and Jimmie does not," Petree said.

"I do disagree with the call at Texas," Petree continued. "I think he had the best car. He had driven to fourth. This is one of the times that maybe Paul should have said, 'Hey, look, Brad, we've got the best car on four tires. You can drive to the front.' And Brad probably would have bought in. But Brad said he wanted two because he just wanted the lead so bad."

Conversely, in both races, "I do think the 2 car [Keselowski] could have finished better than sixth at Martinsville if he'd put tires on," Evernham said. But at Texas, "had the 2 car put on four tires instead of two tires, he still would have had to come back through and pass Kyle [Busch], and Jimmie might have gotten out in clean air and taken off."

Keselowski reiterated this week that his role of performance combined with decision-making is "right there with an NFL quarterback."

And all the calls made by the Blue Deuce team's coach, Wolfe, and its quarterback, throughout this Chase, "have been great calls," Keselowski said. "I'm more disappointed in others for not making them as well. I felt like at Martinsville, if one more car had stayed out, that we would have been able to hold off Jimmie and win the race. I feel like this past week at Texas, if one or two more cars stay out, we would have been able to hold them [the 48] off and win the race."

And, after holding off Johnson for two of the three late restarts, "I felt like if one or two cautions didn't come out at Texas, we win the race," Keselowski said.

In making calls, he can't anticipate any and all possible circumstances. What is certain is that Keselowski is going to continue quarterbacking his team.

"I've had some success being more of a leader and being more of a thinker inside a race car," he said. "And with that success, you continue to evolve that, and that direction has been where I've evolved my style, without a doubt."

To be sure, "That doesn't mean I do it all on my own," Keselowski continued. "Paul and everybody at Penske racing has a lot of thinking to do, as well, and they do a great job with that.

"But if there's a way I can complement that and help them get to the next level with some of the information I have, it's just going to make all of us that much better…"

So Sunday, at Phoenix, if another 48 versus 2 duel unfolds late, Keselowski will have a lot of say. And he'll exercise it.