Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rating the AAA 400: 2 Stars **

Brad Keselowski and the #2 team outsmarted the Sprint Cup Series field again Sunday at Dover International Speedway to win their second Chase race of the season, with seven more to go. Late strategy drama saved what was left of an otherwise boring race that deserves a 2 Star Rating.
Keselowski now leads the points standings and stands five points in front of second-place Jimmie Johnson. This has all the makings of a three-man championship battle among Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who sits 16 points behind in third, and Keselowski is leading the charge.
Those who thought Keselowski would be a factor once the Chase started might have thought he would play the role of Clint Bowyer in past years. Bowyer often had a great start to the Chase and would hang around through most of October before falling behind the real championship contenders.
Keselowski is better than that. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe can pull out top-five finishes on days they have a mediocre car that qualified in the mid-20s because they play the strategy game better than anyone in the sport.
That team looks at every part of the race as an opportunity to gain an advantage while most people focus on the final two runs. Keselowski is on top of the sport because he and his team have made calls early in races while other teams follow the leader and make the same call as everyone else. Granted, they have to have good cars to be able to pull off those moves, but good cars and good strategy are key ingredients in a championship run.
On the other side of the battle, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin walked out of the Monster Mile disappointed even though they had top-10 runs. Busch dominated Sunday the way Hamlin had the week prior at New Hampshire, but fuel strategy got in the way and both drivers had to pit late in the race.
The loss means nothing but frustration for Busch because he isn’t in the Chase this year, but Hamlin gave up six points that could prove extremely costly late in the season. Johnson also had to back down on the final run to make sure he had enough gas to the finish.
While other drivers are leaking points, Keselowski is capitalizing. The rest of the Chase field better take the #2 team seriously or they will be saluting the team with a championship toast at the end of the year.
Overall, there wasn’t much on-track action. J.J. Yeley blew a tire during green-flag pit stops on lap 69 that knocked all but six drivers off the lead lap, but the race wouldn’t have been any more exciting if everyone was on the lead lap.
At this point in the season, the good cars are head and shoulders above the rest of the field so a race among the top six at tracks such as New Hampshire and Dover is about as exciting as it would be if 30 cars were on the lead lap.
That will all change next week, though, as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the final restrictor-plate race of the season.
Those races are nearly impossible to predict, which is part of their intrigue. However, if Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin finish in the top 10, the window of opportunity for the rest of the Chase drivers will virtually shut.
But for one week at least, the Chase will take a back seat to 500 miles of intense 200 mph drama at the biggest track of them all.
Have a great week, everybody.

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