We’re about to find out what Brad Keselowski does for an encore.
The scene on pit road Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway was eerily familiar. It was the second race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and Keselowski had made even-tempered Jeff Gordon angry enough to fight.
Wasn’t this roughly the same thing that happened three weeks ago at Charlotte, after the second race of the Chase’s Contender Round? There, Keselowski traded paint with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin on the track and ran into Kenseth’s car on pit road.
The typically mild-mannered Kenseth was sufficiently riled up to jump Keselowski between transporters, igniting a melee that made national headlines.
Keselowski was fined $50,000 for playing bumper cars on pit road at Charlotte. There was none of that after Sunday night’s AAA Texas 500, but the brawl was far worse.
It was a bar-room donnybrook worthy of the Old West, with fists flying and connecting. Crew members from teams not remotely involved in the incident that caused tempers to flare were flailing in the pileup, either settling old scores or simply joining the “fun.”
For the record, Gordon took umbrage at Keselowski’s aggressiveness on the next-to-last restart, where Keselowski attempted to split the Chevrolets of Gordon and eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson, only to run into Gordon’s car and cut the left rear tire.
Gordon spun, finished 29th and saw his chances of qualifying for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway slip from likely to tenuous.
After the race, Gordon drove to pit road, parked next to Keselowski (who had finished third), walked toward Keselowski’s car and waited for Keselowski to slide out of the driver’s-side window. With one of Keselowski’s crewmen separating the two drivers, Gordon began shouting at his adversary.
The argument didn’t come to blows, however, until race runner-up Kevin Harvick shoved Keselowski toward Gordon. That lit the fuse that set off the explosion and put Keselowski in a similar position to the one he faced after Charlotte—likely needing to win the next race to stay eligible for the series championship.
After the Charlotte incident, Keselowski beat the odds to win at Talladega, but his task may be even more difficult next Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway (3 p.m. ET on ESPN). In the first place, Keselowski has never finished better than third at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert, though he has finished in the top six in four of his last five starts there.
“I think most likely we’re going to have to win Phoenix, just like I felt we were going to have to win here today,” Keselowski said after the Texas race. “I’m sure there’s going to be some contact along the way, across the board.
“Everybody is very desperate. The points are very, very, very close. Anybody can have a bad day and be out of it. And that’s just the reality.”
Everything Keselowski said is true. The Chase standings indeed are close, with 18 points separating Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin (tied for first) from Kevin Harvick in eighth. Keselowski is seventh in points, 17 back of the leaders.
But here’s another reality: the points aren’t really as close as they seem. There are four spots available for the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the top three in the standings—Logano, Hamlin and Ryan Newman (two points back in third)—all control their own destinies.
Logano and Hamlin simply must finish 11th or better at Phoenix to move on to the final race, no matter what anyone else does. Newman, who has recorded top 10s in five of his last six races, simply must finish ninth to advance.
If one of the eight Chase drivers wins at Phoenix, that driver also gets a guaranteed spot in the finale. Realistically, Keselowski faces the same win-or-bust scenario that confronted him at Talladega.
It’s difficult enough to win a race at a track for the first time, especially with the season on the line. But Keselowski may face an even larger obstacle as he tries to repeat the Talladega miracle.
He goes to a track with his sole focus on winning—where he’ll race against a growing list of drivers eager to make sure he doesn’t.