Originally Published: September 2, 2013

Keselowski A Long Shot To Make Chase

Sprint Cup: Keselowski's chances running out

By Brant James | ESPN.com

Brad Keselowski last season withstood the psychological and on-track push back of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to grapple his first crown at NASCAR's highest level.

Combining the Twitter prowess of a Gen Y and the toughness of the Gen Y used to getting his hands dirty, he had announced his arrival in 2011 by bull-rushing his way into the Chase for the Championship -- and finishing fifth in points -- after breaking his ankle in a summer testing accident.

The first driver to bring storied owner Roger Penske a Sprint Cup championship was not only a worthy successor to the identity Rusty Wallace had built for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge (now Ford), he was patron of the product, as evidenced by his exuberantly lubed television performance after claiming his title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With the austere Penske refilling his massive pilsner glass throughout, no less.

Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesSeven drivers have clinched spots for the 2013 Chase. Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is not one of them.

This is not a requiem for Keselowski's tenure as champion. But it's close.

After a devastating 35th-place finish because of a mechanical failure on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Keselowski enters the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway 15th in driver points, winless and in need of a first win of the season, providence, fireballs and lightning. Jeremy Mayfield, circa 2004-type stuff.

"At this point it's not frustration. I'm beyond frustration," Keselowski said after his faltering engine expired with 18 laps left. "At this point you're just looking above going, 'This must be some kind of test to prove how strong we are and what our character is' because I believe in the people I'm around. I think they're doing the right things, but it's just not working. So I'm reserved to this being a test and I love challenges and this is gonna be one helluva challenge."

Keselowski's predicament is multifaceted and compounds his chances of joining Tony Stewart (2006, when the playoff field was just 10) as the only Sprint Cup champion in the Chase era to fail to qualify for a title defense.

Keselowski is 28 points behind Kurt Busch for the 10th and final Chase spot earned by standings position. Winless through 25 races -- with seven top-5s, including a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen and 11 top-10s -- he trails two-time victor Kasey Kahne (12th place), and Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman (13th and 14th, respectively, one win each) for one of two available wild-card spots. There are scenarios that would allow Keselowski into the playoffs, but virtually all of them -- NASCAR's statistical division will release them on Monday afternoon -- involve the total immolation of up to seven drivers ahead of him and Keselowski driving through to victory.

Seven drivers have already clinched spots. Penske teammate Joey Logano isn't one of them, but needs only to finish 11th at Richmond after taking second on Sunday. As he did so, Keselowski was left mulling another frustrating mechanical facet to a season in which Fords -- to which Penske switched this season -- have struggled to match Chevrolet and Toyota in terms of wins. Ford has four Cup victories this season, Toyota 11 and Chevrolet 10.

Though admittedly not as confident as at this time a year ago, Keselowski had said on Friday that tests at Atlanta and Richmond made two clutch wins seem attainable, and he led on Lap 243 of 325 on Monday.

"We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good," he said. "Obviously, we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven't put together the execution or the luck. There's only so much you can control.

"Maybe this was control and maybe it wasn't, I don't know until the guys take it apart and look at it, but we ran up front and we continue to show that we at least have the pieces of what it takes every week to be a title threat and to be in the Chase, but we just haven't put together all those pieces every week and that's what it takes. That doesn't mean we don't have what it takes, we just don't have the consistency in putting all those pieces together this year. I know that all those pieces could come together tomorrow. Unfortunately, it didn't come together today and that's what matters the most."

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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