With two races remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season there is one name noticeably absent from the list of drivers who would qualify for the Chase for the Championship if it began today.
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski currently sits 11th in the point standings. That is one spot too low for earning an automatic berth into the playoffs.
Having yet to score a win thus far in the season, Keselowski is also not in line to receive one of the two wild card spots that are up for grabs.
Should Keselowski fail to improve his point standing position in the next two races, he would join Tony Stewart as the only drivers to miss the Chase in the season following a championship win.
Stewart missed the 2006 playoffs after winning his second series title in 2005.
Keselowski will be looking for strong finishes at both Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend and Richmond International Raceway the following weekend to earn the right to defend his title.
While statistically not his best track, Keselowski has begun to figure out Atlanta. Richmond, however, has been a troublesome site for Keselowski more often than not.
In his first two trips to Atlanta, Keselowski started in the 28th position for both races and posted finishes of 36th and 25th respectively. He failed to finish on the lead lap in either event.
The last two trips to the mile-and-a-half track have been much more successful for Keselowski. He finished sixth in Atlanta in 2011, and last season he produced a third-place effort.
In eight career starts at Richmond, Keselowski has scored just two top-10 finishes, both coming last season. Three times he has finished 33rd or worse, and he has never led a single lap at the three-quarter mile oval.
It is highly likely that at the very least Keselowski will need to post back-to-back top-10 finishes in the next two races to secure a spot in the Chase.
The four drivers ranked 10th through 13th in the standings, who are all vying for that final automatic berth, go into this weekend's race separated by just 11 points.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano is the current man in the cut-off position. Logano has one win on the season and is one of the hottest drivers in the sport.
Five weeks ago, Logano was in 18th place in the points. But after five straight top-10 finishes, including that lone victory, Logano has moved himself into a Chase-qualifying position.
Right behind Keselowski in 12th and 13th place are former series champions Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. Those drivers, like Keselowski, have yet to score a win this season and are banking on strong finishes in the next two races to earn a spot into the playoffs.
When NASCAR implemented the Chase as its means for crowning a champion, it was this type of scenario that they were hoping for; multiple drivers fighting for one spot. The stakes and the drama are high, while teams are under more pressure now than they have been at any other point in the season.
For Keselowski, he knows all about high stakes and pressure after being in a 10-race championship duel with Jimmie Johnson a season ago.
Keselowski and his team were nearly flawless last year in the Chase. For 10 weeks they performed at the highest level and earned themselves a series title. Now they once again need to find that magic for the next two weeks, or the opportunity to defend the championship that they worked so hard for will be lost.
Missing the Chase would be a huge disappointment for Keselowski. But even worse, it would put his name on a short list of historically bad post-championship performances, and that is one list that no driver wants their name on.
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