How Brad Keselowski Went from Champion to Likely Chase Spectator in 1 Season

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2013

Defending series champion Brad Keselowski is faced with a win-or-else situation this Saturday at Richmond, the final race to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski is faced with a win-or-else situation this Saturday at Richmond, the final race to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Unless he pulls off a huge upset Saturday night at Richmond in the final qualifying race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the likely legacy of defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski's 2013 season will be simple: one and done.

As in one championship to date, and that's it.

Well, at least until next season.

Barring a last-second, miraculous comeback at Richmond, when it comes to the Chase's 10 races, Keselowski will not be a playoff participant.

Sprint Cup champion one year, non-contender the next—such is the way NASCAR racing can be.

That was the same fate that befell Tony Stewart after he won his second Cup crown in 2005, only to miss qualifying for the Chase and a chance to defend his title in 2006.

It was also the same fate that befell Carl Edwards, who barely missed winning the championship in 2011, losing to Stewart by a tiebreaker only to completely miss the Chase last season.

That's what Keselowski is facing.

Mathematically, he can still make the Chase. He's 15th in the standings, 28 points out of 10th place—the final guaranteed berth to make the Chase.

Even if he were to win at Richmond, which would also be the first win of the season for a guy who won five races en route to last year's championship, it would be a toss up if Keselowski would still have enough points and overall finishes to make the Chase as one of two wild-card qualifiers, let alone one of the 10 guaranteed spots.

Keselowski's hopes looked good coming into Sunday night's race under the lights at Atlanta. He was 11th in the standings, just four points out of 10th.

But after his engine blew up while leading Sunday's race, it relegated him to a disappointing 35th place finish—his second-worst showing this season—and left him with nothing else but a win-at-all-costs scenario at Richmond.

He has no other choice. Second place would likely not be enough.

But given the bad luck Keselowski has endured this season, the odds are likely more against him than favoring him heading to Richmond.

Where did Keselowski go wrong this season? That's not an easy question to answer.

During the first eight races of the season, he was as high as first and as low as fourth in the standings. He looked like he had picked up where he left off at the end of last season.

But things started going downhill from that point.

In the ninth race of 2013, he was 33rd at Richmond, finishing eight laps off the lead lap, which does not bode well for Saturday's return visit there.

In fact, that finish at Richmond started a four-race span where he wound up 33rd, 15th, 32nd and 36th, dropping him to 10th in the standings after the first third of the season.

But rather than getting back into the game, Keselowski continued to struggle. In a five-race stretch from Sonoma to Indianapolis, one of the most important parts of the season, he finished 21st, 33rd, 21st, fourth (New Hampshire) and 21st.

After finishing a season-best second at Watkins Glen three weeks ago, he once again plummeted, finishing 12th, 30th and now 35th.

All told, Keselowski has just seven top-five and four other top-10 finishes in the first 25 races. That's not even a .500 average, let alone numbers of a potential champion to defend last year's crown.

It also means he's finished 14 other races from 11th to a season-low 36th.

Was his problem overconfidence this season, given how last season played out?

No, I don't think so.

Was it a matter of other drivers getting better between 2012 and 2013?

Again, not likely.

Was it Penske Racing's switch from Dodge to Ford this season?

Some might point a finger there, given how overall, the Ford program has struggled at various times this season. But still, I'll give Ford the benefit of the doubt and not blame its cars or motors for Keselowski's shortcomings in 2013.

If there's anyone or anything to blame, it's not Keselowski or his team. They were no different this season than last. They did everything the right way, only to wind up the wrong way far too many times.

Was it a champion's jinx? You could make a case for that, but I think it's more a matter of a guy who had so much good luck in 2012 winding up with exactly the opposite—nothing but a ton of bad luck—in 2013.

If Keselowski falls short and doesn't make the Chase this year, logic dictates he'll come back stronger in 2014.

But will he? Could what he did last season indeed be a one-and-done legacy not just for last season, but for his career?

Look at Kurt Busch. He won the first Chase championship in 2004 and hasn't come close a second time since.

Then there's Matt Kenseth, who won his first Cup championship in 2003. That remains his only Cup title to date, although that could change if he continues the strong season he's had thus far into the upcoming Chase.

How about Bobby Labonte in 2000? He's had nothing but a precipitous drop in his career ever since winning his first and only Cup title.

Given Keselowski won his first Cup crown at the age of 28, he still has probably at least another good 15 to 20 years to get a second or more.

But you can't help think that how such misfortune this season has eaten into much of the confidence he gained from last season.

With fifth-ranked Kyle Busch winning Sunday night at Atlanta and clinching an automatic Chase berth along with sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth, Keselowski is now one of nine drivers battling for six places (four guaranteed berths and two wild-card spots), all separated by 77 points.

To be more precise, he's the last of nine drivers battling for those six places.

With the potential of going from sitting on the outside to watching from the outside looking in, Keselowski not only is facing one of the most significant races of his career at Richmond, he's also going to be part of an accompanying game of musical chairs.

Last season, he sang Queen's "We Are The Champions."

Now, he'll be singing "Under Pressure" heading into Richmond.

And if he fails to in his Hail Mary bid to make the Chase there, he'll be heading into the playoffs not only ousted as a contender, but be part of a much bigger group that will be singing "Another One Bites the Dust" afterward.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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