Meeting Of The Minds
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on June 16, 2014 | 4:44 P.M. EST
Chad Knaus (right) congratulates Paul Wolfe on winning the Sprint Cup title in 2012. Are they headed for another showdown? (Photo: Getty Images)
A rich subplot is growing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series that shouldn’t be overlooked.
When Brad Keselowski discussed the advantage teams using Hendrick engines had, he wasn’t saying anything people didn’t know. What he was saying, in a way, was that it would take a different approach to beat those teams.
Strategy will be key. So will be how Keselowski drives.
Although there has been quite a battle all season among Keselowski, a few others and Hendrick-powered cars, the rivalry has grown the last few weeks.
Since Dover, Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have finished near each other. When Johnson won at Dover, Keselowski was second. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Pocono, Keselowski was second and Johnson sixth. When Johnson won Sunday at Michigan, Keselowski was third.
He who has the most horsepower owns the most gold in NASCAR. That means that the Hendrick Motorsports drivers - Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne - along with those at Stewart-Haas Racing, can dictate a race based on their speed.
Those not as fast have to try some other plan to win.
That fits nicely for Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, who are known to take a different approach to race strategy. At times it’s worked perfectly and led to victories. Other times, their calculated gambles led to missteps. Each time, they weren't afraid to try.
Two years ago, Keselowski and Wolfe triumphed with that approach, beating Johnson and Chad Knaus for a championship in a matchup of two of the sport’s top drivers and crew chiefs. While one can’t dwell on the past, don’t believe that title loss isn’t a motivator for Johnson and Knaus.
This isn’t a one-on-one matchup, though. There are many layers to this drama.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte have been strong all season. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson also have been near the front most of the season.
If you look solely at Keselowski, Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon, you’ll see that they have all finished in the top 10 in the same race five times. Five other times three-quarters of that group placed in the top 10 in the same race.
The point is unless someone else emerges, these could be the drivers racing for the title.
A driver who could alter the dynamic is Kevin Harvick, who has been the fastest car nearly every weekend, but he and crew chief Rodney Childers have been besieged by bad breaks, bad luck and bad timing.
If they get through these teething problems, Harvick will be a threat for the title. They still have 12 races to sort through those issues before the Chase begins.
As for Keselowski, how he reacts in the car could play a key role in what happens.
Last year he was questioned about not being physical with Kyle Busch on the last lap at Watkins Glen. Keselowski’s reply was “I am unpredictable.’’
When told, at the the time, he was becoming more of a “Mr. Nice Guy’’, Keselowski said: “Well, then you need to stick around a little longer.’’
It’s that type of unpredictability he’ll need on the track. Every driver has their habits. If the horsepower differential doesn’t change much, Keselowski - or anyone else looking to challenge for the title - might have to take a different approach.
Watching these drivers and crew chiefs try unique strategies in the coming weeks could provide an interesting sideshow.