CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nobody seems better prepared for the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs than Team Penske, which has led 662 of the last 834 laps raced.
Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have been on their game at this pivotal point in the championship race, and they’ve got nothing at all to show for their efforts.
With one race remaining to set the field of four for NASCAR’s title-deciding season finale, it’s highly possible both Penske drivers will not race for the championship. It’s possible one of the drivers may still snatch one of the three remaining slots in race.
But both? That’s going to take a small miracle.
Yet that is part of the quirks of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format. The most deserving drivers won’t necessarily race for the title. They instead fall victim to the cutthroat elimination system that pares the field over a trio of three-race segments. During last year’s format debut, both Keselowski and Jeff Gordon failed to make the finale even though they had a combined 10 victories, three of them Chase wins.
It seemed such a shame that two of the most dominant drivers of the year were kept out of the finale, but that’s how it played in this knockout format.
Now Logano, who reeled off three consecutive wins in the second round of the playoffs, is in a must-win situation heading into Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway. He was intentionally wrecked by Matt Kenseth after leading 207 laps at Martinsville Speedway, where the victory he seemed poised to claim would have moved into the final four.
A blown tire in the opening minutes of Sunday’s race at Texas has him in a deep hole and he needs a win at Phoenix.
Then there’s Keselowski, who set a Texas record with 312 laps led on Sunday. But he couldn’t hold off Jimmie Johnson, who led the final four laps to keep Keselowski out of victory lane. It was a shrewd win for Hendrick Motorsports, which blocked one of the top title contenders from moving into the final, where Gordon awaits.
It’s going to be Logano vs. Keselowski in Phoenix for a spot in the finale that neither may ultimately earn. It’s a worst nightmare scenario for Team Penske, which coughed away the IndyCar championship when Juan Pablo Montoya lost on a tiebreaker in the finale.
“Racing teammates is tough, there’s nothing easy about it,” said Johnson, who battled teammate Gordon to the wire in 2007. He called on team owner Roger Penske to figure out a way for Phoenix to benefit both of his drivers. “The way those two cars have become so successful and fast is the way they’ve worked together. I’m sure Roger is going to continue to preach that. The only way one of them will have a shot at Phoenix to advance is if they continue to work together. A good problem to have would be both cars running up front 1-2.”
But that’s almost a fantasy at Phoenix, where reigning series champion Kevin Harvick has run wild the last 2 1/2 years. He’s won four straight and five of the last six, creating the foreboding sense that the field is all running for second on Sunday.
Harvick can’t really sit back and coast, either. He is no lock to make it into the finale, and he has not run as well as Team Penske in this Chase.
Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, has taken a pragmatic approach to the Penske situation. With so much on the line for the teammates, it would be easy for either or both to falter.
He doesn’t believe that will happen.
“It isn’t pressure, it is opportunity,” he said. “I am happy to have those opportunities with a great team. As strong as we ran (at Texas), if we carry that over to Homestead, good Lord, watch out. We know we need to win the next two to win the championship. The good news is we have that opportunity. That’s the way I look at it.”
Logano also sees only opportunity ahead. Once his road to the final was derailed by Kenseth, the Daytona 500 winner has done nothing but focus on the only thing he can control: Trying to win a race.
He is last in the eight-driver field, and that’s got to be a bitter pill to swallow because without Kenseth’s act of retribution, Logano is locked into the finale instead of Gordon.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches,” Logano said. “We will be ready for Phoenix. This team is strong. We didn’t take any wind out of our sails. I feel great about our chances at Phoenix.”