By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
Prior to the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Brad Keselowski called the race a ‘must-win.’ After missing victory lane, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion will be forced to fight through both Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway to make it to the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For a while, it looked as if Keselowski had called his shot, as he swept both stages of the, earning 20 additional points. On a late restart, however, contact between Keselowski and Chase Elliott sent the No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford Fusion slipping back on the running order. About a lap later, Elliott was sent into the wall, bringing out the caution, giving Keselowski a second chance.
In the mad scramble in overtime, Keselowski fought hard with his future teammate, Ryan Blaney. Blaney and Denny Hamlin got together coming to the checkered. As the two bounced off each other and slid, Keselowski tip-toed past.
What followed as a multi-car pile-up as he crossed the line in fourth, one of the few cars unscathed. The fourth-place finish was a far cry from the guaranteed advance to Homestead.
“The track is just real slick on the restarts for everybody,” said Keselowski. “You saw that. It takes about five laps for anyone to get going or more, especially the leader, but there was a lot of hard fighting here because it’s a short track. That’s what short tracks are kind of about is rooting and gauging. You try not to take anybody out, but you’ve got to sometimes rub a little bit. But we had a really great Alliance Truck Parts Ford. We were able to lead laps and win the two stages and bring home a solid finish and that’s something to be proud of.”
The fourth-place finish was Keselowski’s 14th of the season. He is now 29-points ahead of Seven-Time Champion Jimmie Johnson, the first driver behind the cutoff. Keselowski is also 38-points behind points leader Martin Truex, Jr.
Keselowski and his Team Penske team, led by Paul Wolfe, are now faced with an uphill battle, despite their points advantage. Although he has a decent average finish, ninth in the five most recent races, at Texas, Team Penske’s 1.5-mile program has been off all year long. Phoenix, isn’t much better, and it being compared to both intermediate tracks and short tracks, there is more cause for concern for Keselowski and his team.
For now, Keselowski and his team will have to push on for a chance at a second championship at Homestead.