It's no longer the biggest story in the NASCAR world, after controversial late-race tactics by Michael Waltrip Racing earned them significant penalties, but the downfall of Brad Keselowski still merits some conversation as the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicago this weekend.
Namely, the following question needs an answer: why is Keselowski only the second defending Chase champion (the other being Tony Stewart in 2006) to miss the following year's 10-race playoff?
The answer isn't as simple as you might think.
Yes, of course Keselowski's engine failure two weeks ago in Atlanta may have been the final straw. After leading 31 laps and running up front for most of the race, he lost an engine, taking him out of a sure-fire top-10 run and potentially even his first win of the year. He earned 10 points that race, instead of a potential 47 for a victory; the resulting 37-point swing would have put him six points to the good after the Richmond race.
But an entire season, especially not just the regular season, is almost never won or lost by one good or bad race. The truth is, Keselowski had plenty of other opportunities to make up those 31 points and missed them.
Had he been able to sustain the momentum of the first eight races of the season, Keselowski would've been fine, even without a win; with seven top 10s, he still ranked third in points through that section of the season. But the next four races brought finishes of 33rd at Richmond, 15th at Talladega, 32nd at Darlington and 36th at Charlotte, dropping him to 10th in the standings.
The Darlington and Charlotte races were run under the eye of Kevin Buskirk, after what eventually worked out to a two-race suspension to crew chief Paul Wolfe after a team-wide violation at Texas. Had NASCAR chosen to retract the suspensions, those races could've been run a lot better—then again, they could've been so much worse if the original six-race penalty was upheld.
Either way, Keselowski has earned only four top 10s in the 18-race span that both starts and ends at Richmond. Sure, three of those runs were top-five finishes, including a runner-up day in Watkins Glen, but in half of those races the defending champion couldn't crack the top 20.
The biggest problem in execution was that whenever Keselowski made it back into the top 10, he fell right back out not long after. A fourth place finish at Loudon elevated him from 13th to ninth; pitting from the lead with 11 laps to go at Indianapolis in the next Cup race put him right back there. His Watkins Glen run and a 12th place at Michigan kept him eighth in points; a late race accident at Bristol the next week knocked him out for good.
So what's at fault for the lead Penske team's failure to make the Chase?
Could it have been a more relaxed Nationwide schedule, keeping Keselowski out of the car during his mid-season slump as teammate and current Chaser Joey Logano got extra track time? Could it have been pressure on both Logano, whose replacement Matt Kenseth has the top Chase seed, and Penske to put the No. 22 car in at any cost? Could those two races without Wolfe, bringing the team from having a bad race to a full-blown tailspin, have ended the team's Chase shot long before any of us realized it?
Chances are, all three played a factor, but don't downplay the lack of Nationwide seat time. Last year, Keselowski ran 18 of the first 25 races in the lower series; this year, the number fell to 12. Logano has been Penske's primary Nationwide driver in the No. 22 since Talladega in the spring, running 11 races.
No matter the reason, 2013 will prove a learning year for Keselowski, Wolfe, Penske and the entire Blue Deuce team. There are plenty of lessons to take out of the season so far, and a ton that they can apply to 2014—but not before some heavy reflection on this year's failure.
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