At the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs, three drivers stood out as the top title contenders come the finale at Homestead-Miami: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, and Kyle Busch, who had been turning his season around at the right time.
The Ford teams seemed to be a step behind, with six drivers winning eight races in the regular season and the last coming at Daytona in July. Stewart-Haas Racing Fords didn’t have the power that was expected of them, Roush-Fenway Racing Fords seemed to still have issues during their rebirth period, and Team Penske Fords had their hands full with Joey Logano’s uncharacteristic struggles and Brad Keselowski’s lone two victories at Atlanta and Martinsville.
After winning at Talladega for the fifth time Sunday, Keselowski has provided the wake-up call his team needed to get their Ford to the top of the standings as they now sit second in points behind the Toyota team of Truex, who has dominated in 2017. With five races left in the season, things are looking up for the No. 2 crew as they look to make an appearance at Homestead for the first time since the induction of the elimination format in 2014.
He’s won at two of the next five tracks (Kansas, 2011 and Martinsville, Spring 2017) and where he hasn’t won, he’s performed well, with a best finish of second at Fort Worth in 2015, a best finish of third at Phoenix in 2014, and a best finish of third at Homestead twice, in 2014 and 2015. He knows how to get around these tracks and considering the Fords showing their strength at the 1.5-mile speedways it’s just a matter of both driver and team hitting their marks at each track. He’s the reigning Martinsville champion as well, solidifying his domination of NASCAR’s major short tracks.
Following his win Sunday, Keselowski pointed out that Martinsville is a must-win race for him and his crew.
“Yeah, Martinsville at this moment as it stands I would say is a must-win for us, and we know that going in,” said Keselowski. “We tested there, and we feel like that’s the type of track that we have a lot of strength for. At this point, yes, but you know what, that could change. You hate to say that; it’s still three weeks away, right?”
Every year since 2014, when one championship favorite slips, another unexpected entry joins the midst of the championship few. In ’14 it was Ryan Newman, who came up one spot short from stealing the championship. In ’15, it was Jeff Gordon, whose surprise win at Martinsville guaranteed him a Championship Round appearance. In ’16, it was Carl Edwards. Keselowski hasn’t had that strong of a playoff run, as Toyotas have managed to win four of the first five races. But as a former Cup champion he has the championship experience that neither Truex nor Larson have held, and in a way he can use that as an advantage heading into Homestead.
He’s already had the lone mulligan he’s allowed to have and still remain in contention (a 15th-place at Charlotte offset three previous finishes of sixth, fourth, and 10th). However, as a win can prove to revitalize a team and their goals, it’s looking likely that Keselowski and his crew could be the biggest sleeper of the ’17 Playoffs.