Sometimes a driver needs a reality check.
Brad Keselowski certainly got one in 2013 when he failed to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup a year after winning the series championship.
It’s not that Keselowski didn’t have speed in his Team Penske Fords last year. The problem was a lack of execution at key moments, a team-wide failure to operate with the tenacity and precision that had earned Keselowski his first title in NASCAR’s premier series a year earlier.
You could call it a post-championship hangover. You could say Keselowski and his team as a whole approached the 2013 season with a complacency they failed to back up on the track and in the garage.
You could apportion a share of the blame to the transition from Dodge to Ford. No matter how seamless the change might appear, it’s never easy to switch manufacturers. And with that change, Team Penske began using engines supplied by Roush Yates, rather than building its own.
That’s not a knock on the quality of the Roush Yates product. It’s simply pointing out that any significant change requires a period of adjustment, and the No. 2 team didn’t adjust quickly enough to things that were different from 2013 to 2014.
And the bottom line was that Keselowski didn’t make the Chase, becoming only the second driver in the Chase era (since 2004) to miss NASCAR’s 10-race playoff after winning the championship the year before.
But the focus really shouldn’t be on the causes of last year’s shortcomings. The focus belongs, appropriately, on the way Keselowski and his team are reacting to a disappointing 2013 season.
From all appearances, it has elevated them, collectively, to a higher plane.
Two weeks after a dominant victory at Kentucky Speedway, Keselowski led a race-high 138 laps in winning on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The superiority of Keselowski’s car was obvious. Clearly, the team has found something on the engineering side that’s allowing the No. 2 Ford to rotate through the centers of the corners.
Keselowski’s car was so strong on Sunday that crew chief Paul Wolfe had the luxury of making repeated four-tire stops, even though those decisions were guaranteed to sacrifice track position.
Just as often as Wolfe opted to change tires, Keselowski was able to drive right back to the front.
With three victories, Keselowski shares the series lead with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who was out of Sunday’s race early after blowing a tire and clobbering the wall. It’s not just the checkered flags, however, that Keselowski finds so encouraging.
“It’s gratifying in a lot of ways,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think it’s just that we have three wins. I think that it’s that we’re leading laps. I think we were fast last year at this time, but we weren’t executing. This year we’re executing, which is really important as well, and we have a lot of momentum.
“And I think we have a lot of potential still left in our team that we’ve got to keep working to get to, because everybody is going to turn it up a notch when the Chase comes, and we know that, and we need to have another gear to grab to be able to run for a championship here in 2014.
“I think we’re close, but I want to keep pushing, and I’m committed to getting another championship. I know (team owner) Roger and Paul sitting next to me are committed to it, and we want to make it happen. It’s a good feeling for sure.”
In fact, Keselowski thinks his 2014 effort may be superior to the one that won the title two years ago.
“I think, in a lot of ways, we’re stronger than that,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. We had tremendous speed today, and I think there’s potential left, like I said, with different things.
“So that’s all very encouraging to me. I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver, and I think we’re combining all those things, and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”
And, in all honesty, Keselowski looks more like championship timber right now than does Johnson, who continues to battle all-too-frequent racing gremlins while Keselowski continues to run up front.