The return of crew chief Paul Wolfe can’t come soon enough for Brad Keselowski, who finds himself in the danger zone after an unfortunate outing in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It’s not that Kevin Buskirk did a less-than-stellar job subbing for Wolfe, who saw a six-race suspension reduced to two races on appeal after NASCAR confiscated unapproved rear end housing assemblies from the Penske Racing teams Apr. 13 at Texas.
It’s simply that Keselowski and Wolfe have a special chemistry, one that carried them to the Cup championship last season. Keselowski is brash, intense, driven and supremely talented behind the wheel.
Wolfe, a master race strategist, exudes calm confidence. Together they reach a critical mass where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
And right now they need each other—desperately.
The victim of a three-wide wreck late in Sunday’s race at Charlotte, Keselowski suffered his first DNF (did not finish) since the 2012 Daytona 500. Worse, he dropped to 10th in the Cup standings, a precarious perch for a driver without a victory this year.
Only 20 points separate Keselowski from 16th place Ryan Newman, and with 14 races left before the Chase field is set, Keselowski needs to solidify his points position, or better still, to win a race or two as insurance against the sort of random accident that took him out at Charlotte.
Only one Cup champion has missed the Chase the year after winning the title—Tony Stewart in 2006. Keselowski is loath to become the second.
That’s why Wolfe’s return this week at Dover couldn’t come at a better time.
If Keselowski’s fortunes took a body blow on Sunday, the Chase chances of race winner Kevin Harvick made a meteoric move in the opposite direction. In fact, it’s safe to say that Harvick punched his ticket to NASCAR’s playoff with his second victory of the season.
In fact, Harvick’s performance was so strong that, in the post-race news conference, one reporter questioned the wisdom of his announced plan to leave Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing next year, given that the overall performance of the Stewart-Haas cars hasn’t been up to par this season.
“You look at what we’re doing, and we’re focused on this year,” Harvick replied. “We go out and race week to week, do the things that we do to try to win races, win a championship. Whatever happens in the future, we’ll work on some other time. Right now we’re working on winning next week’s race.”
For his part, Childress believes that the team can win a championship, something his organization hasn’t done since Dale Earnhardt claimed the last of his record-tying seven titles in 1994.
“I honestly think RCR is ready to contend for a championship,” said Childress, who currently has two drivers in the top 10, with Harvick in seventh and Paul Menard in eighth.
It’s a long shot to think that Harvick might be the one to deliver a title. Lame-duck drivers simply don’t win championships, no matter how righteous the intentions of the soon-to-be-parted owner and driver might be.
On the other hand, Harvick just might be the exception that proves the rule. He has the grit and the talent to be that guy.
Don’t look now, but driver Marcos Ambrose and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer have found some much-needed speed.
How much speed? Enough to overcome the effects of a broken TV camera drive line that fell across the track Sunday and attacked the undercarriage of Ambrose’s No. 9 Ford, severing a brake line.
Other cars were damaged by the freak incident, and NASCAR found an equitable solution in giving teams 15 minutes to effect repairs of damage that was extraneous to the competition on the track. NASCAR also reinstated the running order prior to the cable breaking.
Ambrose regained the four laps he had lost on pit road after the incident and parlayed the reprieve into a 10th-place result.
“It was like getting attacked by a giant squid,” Ambrose said of his run-in with the cable. “It was just flapping, and I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was cords coming out of maybe one of the 55’s (Mark Martin’s) tires or something, but I could just hear it flapping.
“And then it got caught up in the rear end and I lost my brakes, so it was a nightmare, but we got through it. NASCAR did a great job of actually handling a crisis there, because we were hard-done-by, and they gave us our laps back, and we were able to stay in the race and duke it out.”
The top 10 was Ambrose’s second in what has been a miserable season so far. After Sunday’s race, the affable Australian driver is 22nd in the standings, 22 points behind Tony Stewart in 20th.
But don’t dismiss Ambrose’s chances of making the Chase just yet. Two of the next 14 races will be contested on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, where Ambrose is in his element. A win at either track—or both—would put him in the Wild Card conversation.
The introduction of NASCAR’s Gen-6 car this year also plays in his favor. As was the case with its Gen-5 predecessor, victories in the early life of a new car tend to concentrate in the hands of a few organizations that have the resources to find the setup secrets more rapidly.
If Ambrose can win a race and crack the top 20, he has a legitimate shot at qualifying for his first Chase, provided the uptick in performance the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports team showed Sunday isn’t just a one-night stand.
“We had a real good, hard look at ourselves, and we’ve come back with a better package and a stronger team because of it,” Ambrose said after the race. “We’re proud of our top 10. We’re closer to getting back to the front, and it was a good night for us, a crazy night.
“We missed about three crashes, so I’m pleased. I enjoyed the night, and I’m looking forward to next week.”