Driver Brad Keselowski, with crew chief Paul Wolfe, has three top-10 finishes at Michigan International Speedway. ASSOCIATED PRESS
BROOKLYN, Mich. — It would have been a scene scripted in NASCAR heaven, Brad Keselowski celebrating with his father, Bob, after he vanquished the biggest remaining item on his racing bucket list.
What would it have meant for Keselowski to capture his first Sprint Cup victory at Michigan International Speedway?
“Especially on Father’s Day,” he said, “that would have been really special for me with my family here to win at my home track.”
Instead, Keselowski watched another star introduce himself to victory lane. He settled for a mere pleasant ending, finishing third behind first-time MIS winner Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
In his 10th Cup start at MIS, the blistering two-mile oval where the Rochester Hills, Mich., native first dreamed of being a star, Keselowski turned NASCAR’s fastest track into its biggest grind. He navigated a near-perfect race but lacked the kick in his No. 2 Ford to make a credible charge.
“We just didn’t have the speed all weekend to be a frontrunner,” Keselowski said. “Before the race, I said we needed a good blue-collar day, and that’s what today was for us. We trudged through it and came away with another top-three effort, which is good but not great.”
Good but not great. It’s the same way he has evaluated his season.
The 2012 Cup champion is gaining traction in another promising year. He swung through Michigan coming off back-to-back runner-up finishes in Pocono, Pa., and Dover, Del., and is fifth in the Cup standings.
Yet no matter what he does, it can feel like he’s driving in place next to his rivals from Hendrick Motorsports.
Hendrick drivers have won the last five Cup races and occupy the top three rungs of the standings, with points leader Jeff Gordon followed by Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
On Sunday, the 30-year-old Keselowksi qualified sixth and was the only driver to remain in the top 10 the entire race.
And yet he never felt in position to conquer MIS, where he has twice won on the Nationwide Series but rarely challenged on the Cup circuit. He has three top-10 finishes at MIS.
Can Keselowski and Team Penske catch up to Hendrick?
“I don’t think there is anybody in the wings,” Keselowski said. “The way this year’s package has come together, where we’re at now is where we’ll be for the remainder of the year. You might see some small gains from some teams, but I don’t see anything significant coming. ... What you’re going to find in the development cycle has been found by this time of year. Maybe there’s a little bit more left on the table but not enough to take a team that’s not there to be there.
“That’s my experience. We’ve all got a little bit of work to do because it’s pretty obvious the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else. That’s not something you catch up with in one season.”
Not that Keselowski won’t try. Just as he began to concede his championship hopes, he caught himself and flashed the defiant, paint-trading streak that has made him one of the sport’s most feared challengers.
“Thankfully, we’ve got 12 or 13 weeks until the Chase starts,” he said.
“I know we’ve got some stuff coming up for that. With Penske, I think we’re right there, just maybe a half a nose behind the Hendrick cars. We just need a little bit more, and if we can do that, I feel we can have a strong march over the fall and have a shot at running for the championship.”