MARTINSVILLE, Va.: Brad Keselowski talks as though racing continues to be business as usual.
Keselowski, 28, is leading the standings in NASCAR’S Chase for the Sprint Cup, and although his margin over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a mere seven points, and perennial contender Denny Hamlin is only 20 points behind, Keselowski quickly dismisses talk that being chased in the chase means pressure.
“I know in my shoes, I feel good about our situation,” Keselowski said. “I love the way we performed over the last few weekends, really over the Chase. You want to win every race and obviously that hasn’t happened, but that’s not realistic either. But we’ve been fortunate to win two races and be in contention for others. Even when we don’t win, we seem to be able to find a way to not have a disaster out of it.”
That might be harder to do at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is on the pole, Hamlin is starting fifth and the two have combined to win 10 times. Keselowski, meantime, has never finished better than ninth and will roll off 32nd, back where on-track mayhem can ruin a driver’s day quickly.
Johnson and Hamlin, though, have both started back in the field here and rallied for good finishes. Johnson started 22nd here in the spring, and rallied to contend for the victory before fading to 12th.
This time around, he’d love to see Keselowski struggle early because the leader typically reaches the tail-end of the field and starts lapping cars before 20 laps have been run. That makes it critical for a contender starting near the back to drive his way out of that situation as quickly as possible.
“You have got to go,” Johnson said. “Everybody around you has that same mentality too, so it can be pretty cut throat back there. The priority is to get going. You have got to get up into the 20’s and get a buffer of cars between you and the leader so that things can kind of spread out and get into a rhythm.”
Hamlin started 19th here in March 2010 and rallied for his second of three straight victories.
“Ultimately, at the start of races, when you start getting into each other, things happen a little bit worse back there because of the chain reaction,” Hamlin said. “Usually if you have a good car, and you don’t get in trouble, it takes your second or third run, you’ll find yourself in the top five.”
Even if Keselowski rallies to get into contention on NASCAR’s oldest, trickiest oval, Hamlin figures the air of calm about the season’s final three races will be harder to maintain the longer it lasts.
“You can put that iron-clad armor around you, and think that it’s not going to affect you, but it will eventually,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t matter whether you are going from the divisional game to the championship series, it just continues to build and get harder to block out everything that you hear.”
Hamlin finished third in the chase in 2006 and was second two years ago. He and Keselowski share the series lead with five victories and Hamlin thinks No. 6 would put him right in the thick of contention.
Denny Hamlin ducked under Matt Crafton with five laps to go and won the NASCAR truck series race at Martinsville Speedway.
The victory was Hamlin’s second in the truck series and came as the championship standings were significantly jumbled.
Ty Dillon, who has led since mid-September, cut a tire with 48 laps to go and went from running sixth to finishing 28th.
James Buescher, only one point behind Dillon to start the day, finished 18th but assumed the points lead by 21 over Dillon.