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Brad Keselowski Closing In On NASCAR Chase With 3rd Cup Checkered of 2011

With just two races remaining before the eighth annual Chase for the Championship gets under way in the NASCAR sprint Cup Series, five spots in the Chase field are now locked down, including one for Brad Keselowski, the winner last night at Bristol.

Brad Keselowski at Bristol Motor Speedway
Brad Keselowski at Bristol Motor Speedway

Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski is on a terror like no other, and it's coming at just the right time. In only his fourth season in NASCAR's top racing series, the 27-year-old all but secured his place in the Chase for the Cup by winning the Irwin Tools Night Race at historic Bristol Motor Speedway, Keselowski's second win this month and third of the season.

Keselowski, in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, started the race in eighth position and ran among the top five most of the night at the lightning-fast, half-mile Bristol oval.  On the restart on lap 421, The No. 2 car beat Martin Truex Jr. off of pit row to regain the lead for the seventh and final time and was never headed from there.

Since breaking his ankle the first week in August in a road test at Road Atlanta, Keselowski's sizzling August run in the Sprint Cup Series has included two race victories (at Pocono and Bristol), a second-place finish two weeks ago at the Watkins Glen road course and third place last weekend at Michigan. In the process, he has moved from 21st to 11th in the points standings.

In a moment of high exuberance and celebration upon entering Victory Lane, Keselowski climbed out and onto the roof of his winning car, pumped his fist repeatedly in the air and leaped to the ground in joy, with nary a thought about his injured ankle. He was quickly reminded of it, however, the moment his left leg hit the ground. The sharp pain notwithstanding, I'm sure the three-time Cup winner this season felt it was all worth it.

"Wow!" Kesleowski shouted as he exited the No. 2 car in Victory Lane. "I used to watch Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt win this race. This is a race of champions. I can't believe it.

"I believed in (Penske crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) since we started this year, and we've just made good adjustments to our cars over the last few months," he said.

Truex Jr. followed Keselowski across the finish line in second place in Saturday night's Cup race. The Hendrick Motorsports team of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who between them own nine NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, came in third and fourth, and Jamie McMurray, from Joplin, Mo., captured fifth. The No. 24 Chevrolet driven by Gordon led a race-high 206 laps at Bristol. Gordon's third-place finish was his third top-ten at the legendary eastern Tennessee racing venue in his last four races there.

Johnson, Matt Kenseth, who came in sixth at Bristol, and Columbia, Mo.'s, Carl Edwards, who was ninth, all clinched spots in the Chase, which begins in three weeks. Kyle Busch clinched a spot last week at Michigan with his third Sprint Cup victory of the season. The younger Busch brother was one of ten drivers who held the lead in the second race of the season at Bristol. His short-lived four-laps out in front midway through the race was the 18th time in 24 Cup races this year that Busch has lead for at least one lap.

With four spots among the 12 qualifiers for the Chase for the Championship already decided and only two races remaining before the Chase field is set, time is almost gone for all but perhaps three or four drivers who are realistically fighting for chance to sneak into the Chase either on points or as a wild-card entry.

Clint Bowyer, of Emporia, Kan., currently is 12th in points but with no wins to his credit this year, he is in big danger of being on the outside looking in when the 12 qualifiers are determined after the Cup race at Richmond in two weeks that will end the regular season. Kevin Harvick and Gordon, fifth and sixth in points heading to the AdvoCare 500 next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, both need just four points in the final two races to clinch two more Chase spots.

If Ryan Newman, who started from the pole and came in eighth at Bristol, finishes 20th or better at Atlanta, he will clinch a Chase spot, and if Kyle Busch's older brother, Kurt, comes in seventh or better at Atlanta, he will punch his ticket into the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart, are currently ninth and tenth in points, and if they have a 49-point advantage over the 11th-place driver after Atlanta, they both will be in.

Statistically, all NASCAR drivers higher than 23rd in points (Juan Pablo Montoya currently is 23rd and Jeff Burton is 24th) are out of the race for the Chase.

For Bowyer to qualify for the Chase for the second time in his eight-year NASCAR career, he realistically needs to win both of the final two races. Bowyer's chances take on even longer odds when you consider he has no wins in 10 starts at Atlanta, but does have a win in the same number of starts at Richmond.