Ryan: Some random thoughts while waiting to race after the rain
Wet weather in Indianapolis has precluded any Cup or Xfinity cars getting on track at the Brickyard this weekend. So in lieu of any Indianapolis Motor Speedway activity, let’s revisit a few postrace musings from the Southern 500:
If there’s something we’ve learned about Brad Keselowski in a dynamic decade as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken, plucky and cerebral stars, it’s that he rarely ducks a question.
His feelings about the most divisive of national controversies?
Keselowski will weigh in firmly but gracefully (and admittedly against the advice of his PR counsel).
Opinions on head injuries that run counter to the advice of board-certified neurologists?
Keselowski will strike a recalcitrant tone and remain consistent year after year.
Big-picture solutions on what’s ailing NASCAR and how to fix it?
But there was one question in 2018 that had the Team Penske driver intentionally and uncharacteristically shying away from microphones this season. And in the context of the emotionally and politically charged topics that Keselowski has embraced in the past, it seemed rather benign.
When are you going to win again?
“I’ve been dodging you so I don’t have to answer it,” he told ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass after Sunday’s victory in the Southern 500, his first since October 2017. Keselowski admitted it had “weighed heavy” on his mind that he might have to face that question over the final 12 weeks of the season.
It was striking to hear from a star whose confidence and sense of place within NASCAR are typically immutable. But it was yet another reminder of how fleeting success is and how fickle an impact it has even on someone as self-assured as NASCAR’s first Millennial champion, who now is in his ninth full season in the Cup Series.
Idealism and worldliness haven’t left the 34-year-old, but Keselowski now also speaks with the wizened perspective of a realist veteran in the vein of Mark Martin’s mindfulness that every win could be the last.
“Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee,” Keselowski said. “What’s so difficult about those moments is early in my career, 2010, we didn’t have cars anywhere close to being able to win, and then 2011 came, at least the second half of the year, and we did have cars capable of winning.
“And I started to kind of make a name for myself, and there’s almost a point in time where you take that for granted, and then you start to see that slip away, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, this could be it, right?’ I might not ever get those opportunities again.”
“Moments like today are just so refreshing. They recharge your batteries so much because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well.”
That was one of many illustrative postrace analogies from Keselowski, reminding us of the unique candor that’s been missing since removing himself from the NASCAR industry conversation for much of the past year during his victory lane absence.
He compared the agonizing confirmation of learning he’d averted a speeding penalty on his fateful pit stop with waiting “on a death sentence.” The moves he perfected in Saturday’s Xfinity race that went unused Sunday were like being ready for a dance floor anthem that never was played.
NASCAR is a better place when regularly graced by his distinctive viewpoints, but those shared at Darlington also had a new bent.
The typically genuine introspection was tinged with a greater world-weariness from Keselowski, who has had a child, gotten married and settled fully into family life since the 2011-14 era when he regularly clashed with the NASCAR establishment.
He was less brash and more humble late Sunday night after a Darlington sweep. But just as sharply insightful when describing the downsides of a 29-race winless streak.
“When you’re not fast, life sucks as a race car driver,” he said. “You’re just literally going around beating your head up against a wall, hoping that, like I said, each weekend that it’ll show up, that the engineering will show up and the team will show up and that everything will happen just perfect, because you have to.
“And that you won’t screw it up as a driver when they do show up.”
The few times that his No. 2 Ford has been in position to win this year, Keselowski hasn’t capitalized, and it has seemed a result of pressing and being less focused.
Arguably the best racer in the draft at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski crashed out of the season’s first three restrictor-plate races for the first time in his career.
“I feel like those were failures on my part, and so that’s really frustrating,” he said. “And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.”
He does know the questions about it will subside.
At least for now.
Kyle Larson’s classy postrace interviews at Darlington – in which he avoided laying any blame with his team for the final pit stop that cost his dominant car the win – were more signs of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s growth as a leader.
Though bluntness is among his most appealing traits, Larson clearly has embraced his role as the focal point for the No. 42 Chevrolet. He isn’t much of a car guy, so there are inherent limits to how much Larson authentically can be immersed in the team’s inner workings. But he is doing and saying all the right things to instill faith without compromising his honesty.
Aside from how he graciously handled Darlington, other recent indicators of the maturation have been:
- His emphasis on the less visible gains made by his team even while addressing why Ganassi has lagged behind other Chevrolets over the past two months (the trademark candor emerged after his third at Darlington, noting “I feel like we’ve kind of been stale up until this weekend”).
- An apology to crew chief Chad Johnston for being “in a bad mood” on the team radio during the first half of his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway (where he started from the pole but lacked speed and had “an off race”).
- His sensitivity to how his dirt-racing schedule is viewed, which ostensibly is through the eyes of NASCAR fans but just as importantly could be how his team accepts his moonlighting.
Larson, 26, is always a joy to watch behind the wheel, but his emergence as the rock of the team (though still mild-mannered and reserved in nature) also has been beguiling.
The past two Cup races have shown the critical importance of lane sensitivity for leaders on restarts.
On every restart of the Southern 500, the first-place car took the inside and retained the position. The story was the same at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the outside line was heavily preferred.
Of the last six restarts on the 0.533-mile oval, winner Kurt Busch was the only driver who started on the inside in second and took the lead. No one else even held the position. Between Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer, the other five drivers who restarted in second lost an average of 2.6 spots when the green flag dropped.
The restart disparity is magnified most at Bristol and Martinsville Speedway. But Larson’s plight at Darlington (essentially losing the race despite a dominant car because he lost the race out of the pits by roughly 6 inches to Keselowski) underscores how arbitrary the positioning on restarts also can be in deciding outcomes. If you are in the wrong lane, it often doesn’t matter how strong your car is.