Apparently, Brad Keselowski can’t stand prosperity.
Or perhaps he’s just trying to extract every ounce of drama possible from the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format.
A week after keeping his championship hopes alive with a storybook victory at Talladega Superspeedway, in a race he had to win to advance to the Chase’s Eliminator Round, Keselowski and his No. 2 Ford team are back on skid row.
And, once again, he has company on his quick trip from the penthouse to the outhouse heading into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).
At Talladega, Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the GEICO 500 facing win-or-bust scenarios. Obviously, the trophy went to the Keselowski and No. 2 Team Penske squad, and the pink slips went to Johnson and Earnhardt.
After Martinsville, Keselowski can commiserate with fellow championship favorite Kevin Harvick, who met his own Waterloo on Sunday at Martinsville in the form of fellow Chase driver Matt Kenseth.
Keselowski and Harvick fell to the bottom of the Chase grid in very different, but equally precipitous ways.
Harvick was first to go. After starting 33rd thanks to an overly loose setup in his car for Friday’s qualifying session, Harvick had worked his way methodically into the top 10 before the halfway point of the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.
But on Lap 228, the race went awry for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Kenseth drove hard into Turn 1 in the bottom lane, ran up on teammate and fellow Chase driver Denny Hamlin, wheel-hopped in the corner and spun, knocking Harvick into the outside wall.
Harvick drove his smoking car to the garage, where his team performed masterful surgery over the course of 40 laps and sent Harvick back to the track to complete the race in a Chevy carcass that looked more like a modified than a Cup car.
Harvick finished 33rd, dropped 33 points behind race runner-up and Chase leader Jeff Gordon and left Martinsville with a chip on his shoulder and a promise to make sure Kenseth wouldn’t win the championship.
For most of the race, Harvick seemed likely to finish alone near the bottom of the running order, but Keselowski proved once again that misery loves company.
In a freakish failure after a restart on Lap 434 of 500, Keselowski broke a rear gear. Like Harvick, he took his car to the garage, where his crew replaced the gear within 28 laps and sent the No. 2 Ford back on track to complete the race.
Keselowski finished 31st, dropped 31 points behind Gordon and left Martinsville facing the same sort of challenge that confronted him at Talladega.
With the top five drivers bunched within a seven-point range, and with a cut from eight to four Chase drivers looming two weeks hence at Phoenix, both Keselowski and Harvick know the certain path to avoid elimination from the championship—and in all probability the only path—is to win one of the next two races.
That, of course, leaves us with a litany of intriguing unanswered questions as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads for Texas and then Phoenix.
Can lightning strike twice for Keselowski?
Should Kenseth start looking over his shoulder now, or will Harvick wait to exact payback only if Kenseth makes the final four at Homestead, where the four remaining Chase drivers will battle for a title that goes to the highest finisher among the four?
Can Harvick live up to his nickname “The Closer” by winning one of the next two races in a car that has been the class of the field for most of the season? Harvick will be a heavy favorite at Phoenix, where he led 224 of 312 laps in a dominating win on March 2.
Or, conversely, will two of the year’s best-performing cars, drivers and teams suffer elimination under a new Chase format that has no memory?
By the time we exit Phoenix, all those questions will be answered.
Except, perhaps, for the one about Kenseth. Harvick may save that surprise for the season finale.