The always blunt Brad Keselowski climbed from his car after qualifying at Sonoma this past week and stated, “We’ve got some work to do, because I don’t think we’re all that great right now.”
He was referring to his team’s chances in Sunday’s road-course race, but he just as easily could have been talking about the 2013 season. The simple fact is, as we near the midway point, the defending Sprint Cup champion isn’t all that great right now.
Keselowski’s 21st-place showing at Sonoma marked the seventh time in the past eight races that he has failed to crack the top 10. This comes after a blistering start to the season in which he had four top-5 finishes and seven top 10s in his first eight starts. Since then, he’s dropped from third to ninth in the point standings and is only 10 points away from falling out of the top 10 entirely. In fact, the standings are so crowded that Keselowski is a mere 29 points ahead of 17th place Kurt Busch. He’s also only one early crash or mechanical failure away from dipping into territory rarely seen by a defending Cup champion.
Over the past 40 years, since NASCAR consolidated its schedule, no defending Cup champion has finished worse than 12th in the standings (not including 1992 champ Alan Kulwicki, who died in a place crash in April of 1993). In fact, only five drivers have finished worse than seventh. The average finishing position for the defending champion over the past four decades has been fourth place.
Yet here we have Keselowski on the verge of being evicted from NASCAR’s penthouse and moving into a ground-floor duplex. Making the situation even more disconcerting for Keselowski is the fact that he is winless this season, meaning at the moment he couldn’t even capture one of the two Chase wild-card berths given to drivers outside the top 10 in points who have the most victories. With 10 races to go before the 12-car Chase field is set, we are looking at the distinct possibility that NASCAR’s defending Sprint Cup champion might not even qualify for the Chase.