Brad Keselowski’s rise through the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in the sport. It was only six weeks ago that Keselowski was sitting 23rd in points with slim hopes of making the Chase for the Championship and now heading into this weeks race in Atlanta, he’s 11th and considered one of the favorites to win it all.
His last four races have seen him win twice with a runner-up and third-place finish in the other two. We’ve seen likes of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon roll out similar stretches, but those were years where they dominated the entire season. In Keselowski’s case, he had only two top-five finishes in the first 20 races of the season; now he’s got six, including three wins, tied for second best in the series.
This has been a year full or parity where 14 different drivers have won a race which makes his achievement even more astounding. He’s peaking at the right time and as he continues to dominate on every type of track, his odds to win the championship keep getting lower and lower.
The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book opened Keselowski at odds of 300/1 to win the title before the season started. Before last week, while he was on a great three-race run, he was 25/1. Following Saturday’s night’s Bristol win, he’s now 15/1, the same odds as his teammate Kurt Busch who currently sits in the eighth position.
The shift in power within the Penske organization seems to coincide with each other beginning with the Brickyard 400 five races ago. Heading into the race, Kurt Busch was third in points with Keselowski 23rd. Four of Busch’s last five starts have seen him finish 17th or worse while plummeting to eighth while Keselowski has gone on his run like he’s made a deal with the devil.
Busch’s struggles and Keselowski’s rise could be a matter of car owner Roger Penske having enough with Busch’s antics within the organization. Busch was supposed to be the No. 1 on the team and the equipment through the first half between each reflected it, but it’s obvious something changed for each because it wasn’t like Keselowski just learned how to drive better. He’s always wheeled a good car to great results in every series he’s been in.
Let’s also not forget that Keselowski has done all this in the last four races with a broken ankle, which is part of what has endeared him to so many fans in such a short amount of time. NASCAR fans love tough drivers and driving like he has with a broken limb is about as tough as it gets.
Keselowski had to fight his way to where he’s at with all kinds of resistance from drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin trying to intimidate him on and off the track. Last season Hamlin was publicly calling him Brad Crash-a-lot-ski, but now it’s not so funny anymore for Hamlin as he’s become the one who struggles every week with the wall and is danger of not making the Chase.
This will be the first and only race of the season in Atlanta, the first time since the track opened in 1960 that they won’t host two races. In the past, Atlanta Motor Speedway officials had always attributed their declining fall attendance to losing the battle for customer dollars to SEC football which makes it ironic that they would host their one date on the opening week of college football.
Not only do they have to battle all the teams for attention this week, but the Georgia Bulldogs play their biggest game of the season in the Georgia Dome against Boise State on Saturday night. Perhaps if there is any money left over from the Bulldog fan's day of partying, the Atlanta race might get some spillover attendance on Sunday night.
While we haven’t seen a race in Atlanta this year, we have seen a few between the sisters tracks of Las Vegas, Charlotte and Texas which can be used as a great reference point to handicap this weeks race. The Roush drivers would be a good starting point beginning with three-time Atlanta winner Carl Edwards, who won at Las Vegas, and Matt Kenseth, who won at Texas. Edwards will be using his fifth-place Kansas chassis while Kenseth will be going with a brand new car.
Kevin Harvick won at Charlotte just ahead of Roush driver David Ragan, but it was Kenseth who led the most laps and had the best car that night. If Ragan can duplicate his fine performance from Charlotte and capture a win, it would give him two wins and bump Hamlin out of the Chase with one race to go. Kenseth should to be the driver to focus on this week with three-time Atlanta winner Jimmie Johnson being there as well.
We shouldn't forget about Harvick, though. He hasn't won a race since Charlotte in May, his third of the season, but it should be noted for good measure that he will be using that same Charlotte car this week. I've been waiting for him to regain some momentum and Atlanta might be the place.
Johnson will be using a car that finished third at Fontana, eighth at Texas, ninth at Dover and most recently fourth-place at Pocono. This is his time of the year where it's all business for Johnson. Although he doesn't have a win with this car, it's pretty plain to see that he will likely be in the top-five contending.
If Penske has actually shifted powers within his organization, Keselowski should also be considered because Kurt Busch has won two of the last four Atlanta races. Keselowski will be using his Michigan car that finish 25th. His last four races have also been with cars that didn't have great first impressions, so it matters little.
We should also mention Paul Menard as a possible candidate to do well just because he's using his winning Brickyard 400 chassis this week.
Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
2) # 48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
4) #99 Carl Edwards (7/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (14/1)