Team Penske geared up for Chase

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 17:  Brad Keselowski (L), driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, talks to his team owner, Roger Penske, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, NC – MAY 17: Brad Keselowski (L), driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, talks to his team owner, Roger Penske, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)

It’s fair to say Brad Keselowski flopped in 2013 – and he’d be the first to admit it. After winning the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2012 – joining Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to achieve the feat in their first three seasons – Keselowski failed to even qualify for the Chase.

Now, he’s back in NASCAR’s postseason.

As the favorite.

Keselowski earned the No. 1 seed in the Chase after clinching his series-high fourth victory of the season with a dominant performance at Richmond where he led all but 17-of-400 laps – a track record for a 400-lap race at the Virginia short track. He enters the first leg of the Chase, known as “The Challenger Round” with 12 bonus points (three for each win) and valuable momentum.

“The Miller Lite Ford Fusion was just flying, and I couldn’t ask for a better way to enter the Chase than to win and take the first seed,” Keselowski said after his win at Richmond.

The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (2:00 p.m. ET on ESPN), the same place Keselowski took the checkered flag to kick off his first championship run.

“We won the Chicago race in 2012, and I’d like to do that again,” Keselowski said. “This team is fired up, and we look to continue building on what we’ve done to get to this point of the season.”

To become a two-time champion, Keselowski must fend off his Penske teammate Joey Logano. The No. 22 driver occupies the Chase’s fifth seed and ranks tied for second in the series with a career-high three wins. Over the last month, no driver has been more consistent than Logano, who has logged six top-10 finishes in his past seven races.

The 24-year-old will have to carry that consistency into the Chase.

“You have to go into these next 10 races and bring your A-game the entire time,” Logano said. “You can’t have a letdown. You can’t afford to dig yourself out of a hole.  Ten races sounds like a lot of time and a lot of chances, but it’s not.”

Elliott goes for sweep at Chicago

It’s scary to think Chase Elliott can run better at Chicagoland Speedway than he did in his first visit there this season. AAA Texas 500 - Practice

The 18-year-old JR Motorsports wunderkind and No. 1-ranked driver in the NASCAR Nationwide Series led a race-high 85 laps and posted his highest driver rating of the year (145.2) on his way to Victory Lane.

Somehow he thinks he can outdo that performance as he goes for the Windy City sweep in Saturday’s Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast 300 Powered By Coca-Cola (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN 2).

“I’m excited to get back up to Chicagoland Speedway this weekend,” Elliot said. “We had a great run there back in July, but the more I look back on that night, I can see a bunch of things we can improve on.”

With the Nationwide Series title in his sights, Elliott will also try to increase his 19-point advantage in the standings over teammate Regan Smith. He has shown no signs of letting up, posting top-five finishes in his last four races, including a runner-up showing at Richmond last week.

Although a comfortable lead, Elliott understands his 19-point edge is not insurmountable – especially with eight races left on the schedule.

“One mistake can take you out of contention with a snap of the finger, so we have to minimize the risks for mistakes and execute when it matters, like on pit stops and late-race decisions,” Elliott said. “It has been an unbelievable season so far and we have worked well together, but now it’s time to get to work and finish strong.”

Consistent Sauter continues on towards Truck Series title

In a season filled with high-octane racing highlighted by photo-finishes (including the second-closest road course finish in NASCAR national series history, at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park), there has been one constant on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – Johnny Sauter.

BROOKLYN, MI - AUGUST 16:  Johnny Sauter, driver of the #98 Phil Parsons Racing Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 44th Annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 16, 2013 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

BROOKLYN, MI – AUGUST 16: Johnny Sauter, driver of the #98 Phil Parsons Racing Ford, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 44th Annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 16, 2013 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The 36-year-old Wisconsin native currently ranks first in the series with a seven-point lead over teammate Matt Crafton and remains the only driver to appear in the top-five of the standings all season.

Don’t count on Sauter losing the top spot any time soon.  Boasting a combined average finish of 8.8 at the remaining eight tracks, his chances of taking home his first NCWTS title are strong.

The next obstacle standing in Sauter’s way on his quest for his first Truck Series championship is Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the Lucas Oil 225 on Friday night (8:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1).

“Things have been touch and go for us there in the trucks, but we’ve been quick there in the past and our stuff is usually pretty good on the intermediate tracks,” said Sauter of the 1.5-mile course located in Joliet, Illinois. “I’ve liked the track from the first time I got on it and I won my first Nationwide Series race there in 2002, so I’m looking forward to getting back there this weekend.”

Sauter is one of three drivers to have four top-10 finishes in the five NCWTS races previously held at Chicagoland Speedway (Kyle Busch and Matt Crafton are the others). He has registered fifth and eighth-place finishes since winning at Michigan to take the points lead.

NASCAR this weekend

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Next Race: MyAFibStory.com 400

The Place: Chicagoland Speedway

The Date: Sunday, Sept.14

The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN, 1 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Next Race: Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast 300 Powered By Coca-Cola

The Place: Chicagoland Speedway

The Date: Saturday, Sept. 13

The Time: 3:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Next Race: Lucas Oil 225

The Place: Chicagoland Speedway

The Date: Friday, Sept. 12

The Time: 8:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX Sports 1, 8 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 225 miles (150 laps)

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