HAMPTON, Ga. — Brad Keselowski thought he finally got the season-long break he needed when he took the lead with 111 laps remaining in Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But a desperate attempt to defend his Sprint Cup Series championship came apart, one cylinder at a time, until his Ford was parked in the garage area 18 laps short of the finish line.
Keselowski barely remains on the bubble to qualify for the upcoming Chase for the Championship, and a blown engine at Atlanta means he needs a miracle, if not more, in Saturday’s final race before the playoffs at Richmond International Raceway.
Now stuck in 15th place in the standings and without a victory, Keselowski faces improbable odds in qualifying for the Chase, either as a top 10 driver or a wild card entry.
There are 10 drivers still mathematically alive to earn one of six remaining spots in the Chase. None have a more daunting challenge than Keselowski.
“We don’t dictate our own fate, which is never good,” he said. “Obviously, we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven’t put together the execution or the luck. There’s only so much you can control.”
While former champions like Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch still have to race their way into the playoffs in Richmond, others already have made the cut.
Kyle Busch won at Atlanta after winning the race off pit road during the final pit stop and leading the final 36 laps. The victory also locked him into the Chase.
A year ago he missed the playoffs by three points when a pit strategy gamble at Richmond failed.
“A heck of a lot different than 365 days ago, I’ll tell you that much,” Busch said.
Joey Logano finished second to solidify his chances for the playoffs, while Martin Truex Jr. also stayed in contention with a third-place finish.
Newman and Earnhardt also are on the playoff bubble heading into Saturday’s race.
Not only does Keselowski face a 28-point deficit to get into the top 10, he has nine other drivers ahead of him who could keep him from moving up in the standings. Even if he wins at Richmond, to be considered for a wild card spot, there are four other drivers ahead of him in points who have a win, too.
If he fails to qualify for the playoffs he would become the second champion to miss the Chase a year later since the playoff format was developed for the 2004 season. Tony Stewart won the championship in 2005 and missed the Chase a year later.
“We ran up front and we continue to show that we at least have the pieces of what it takes every week to be a title threat and to be in the Chase, but we just haven’t put together all those pieces every week and that’s what it takes,” Keselowski said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have what it takes.
“At this point it’s not frustration. I’m beyond frustration. At this point you’re just looking above going, ‘This must be some kind of test to prove how strong we are and what our character is’ because I believe in the people I’m around. I think they’re doing the right things, but it’s just not working.”
With very little time to fix it.