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Hallman: Keselowski adds himself to Cup championship mix

September 20, 2018

No more Big Three chatter, please. NASCAR is now all about the Big Four.

Welcome, Brad Keselowski. I’m declaring the trio is now expanded to a quartet.

And you could make the case that Kez is the biggest of the Big Four, because right now, he is getting the best of the other three — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. And this is the perfect time to get hot, with NASCAR’s playoffs just underway.

Keselowski has won three straight races — the final two events of the series’ regular season and the playoff opener last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’ll be gunning to make it four straight in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

He’s the third driver this year to win three in a row — Harvick and Busch did it earlier.

It’s not as though Harvick, Busch and Truex have gone stale. Among them, they won five of the six races before Keselowski started his streak. Harvick is a seven-time winner in 2018, Busch has won six races, Truex four.

Until his streak started, Keselowski had not won this season. He had recorded six top-fives, including a couple of runner-up finishes. To that point, it had been a not-great but not-so-bad year.

But here’s the thing. Keselowski is leading a resurgence of the three-car Ford stable operated by Roger Penske. The other two drivers, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, have also picked up the pace.

At Vegas, there were stretches when Team Penske ran 1-2-3 and appeared capable of finishing that way. As it turned out, all three finished in the top five.

NASCAR’s premier series is often one of ebb and flow. Penske, and particularly Keselowski, are flowing.

It can happen when one team’s crew chief makes a series of midrace strategic decisions that work perfectly, while another can’t seem to catch a break. Or one crew can discover an advantageous chassis adjustment or engine tweak that doesn’t set off alarms during inspections.

Perhaps most importantly, when a team gets things right, the driver has to be ready to seize the day. If he is ready, that driver gets a confidence boost, and his team members feel their efforts aren’t wasted. And maybe his rivals get a little frustrated.

Keselowski, among the most laid-back drivers on the circuit, was ready. He revels in his successes and credits his crew for giving him a good car and for executing superb pit stops.

On the other hand, if you’d like an example of “a little frustrated,” consider Harvick, the most successful of the four Ford drivers for Stewart Haas Racing.

For most of the season, Harvick has been top dog in the NASCAR Cup Series. But these past few weeks, he hasn’t even been top dog among the Fords.

Is that eating at him? Maybe not. Maybe in Richmond’s race Saturday, he’ll rack up his eighth win of the season. But the normally slick Harvick has been a bit testy these past few weeks.

When he blew a tire and crashed at Vegas, he came out of his car fuming, blaming his troubles on Goodyear’s inconsistent tires. A Goodyear spokesman pointed out that by and large, the company’s tires had performed consistently well during the event.

A couple of weeks earlier, at Darlington Raceway, Harvick had entered the second-tier Xfinity Series race, a companion to the Cup event. Ross Chastain, one of the Xfinity Series’ regulars, had a chance to win the event and raced Harvick harder than Harvick liked as they fought for the lead.

Either of the two could have eased up and conceded the lead. But should Harvick have expected Chastain to yield the front spot meekly? Chastain was attempting to notch his first Xfinity win. Harvick has won 47 Xfinity races.

Both kept racing hard. Harvick’s car, on the inside, waggled and bumped Chastain into the wall.

Chastain, his chance to win ruined, retaliated immediately by intentionally hooking Harvick’s fender, causing the Cup interloper to spin nose-first into the wall.

Harvick’s race was over. When he was interviewed, he put the blame for the initial contact on Chastain. Then he got a little extra snarky, adding that Chastain’s intentional revenge might prevent future opportunities for the young driver.

Chip Ganassi, the owner of Chastain’s car, begged to differ.

He said Chastain’s refusal to back down against a star driver from a higher series might be just what a big-time team was seeking.

Notably, two weeks later, Chastain won the Xfinity race at Vegas — one in which no Cup regulars participated.

So there you have it. Keselowski is on a roll and loving it. Harvick is carping at minor league drivers and at the company that provides NASCAR’s race tires.

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