For the last several weeks, Brad Keselowski has posted solid results despite mediocre qualifying efforts. But Sunday's Martinsville race could be his toughest challenge yet.
Points leader Keselowski qualified 32nd on Friday while Jimmie Johnson (-7 points) won the pole position, meaning Keselowski will have a difficult task over 500 laps to make up enough ground on Johnson to retain the points lead.
Not only that, but a bad day by Keselowski might open the door for Denny Hamlin, who is currently 20 points behind but qualified fifth.
Keselowski, though, said he isn't worried. He played it cool in a post-qualifying news conference on Friday afternoon and said he was confident about his team's chances to have a good result.
"I thought last weekend (at Kansas) was harder to pass than this one will be, to be quite honest," he said. "That's not to say it's going to be easy at Martinsville, but there are quite a few more variables here that work to your favor with strategies and so forth, and I feel confident it'll work its way out here.
"Obviously, it's a very, very long race with 500 laps around here. There's a lot of tools in our tool chest to help us recover from that."
But what if Keselowski doesn't get the chance to recover through strategy plays? What if his poor starting spot gets him lapped by Johnson before the No. 2 team can use a pit stop to gain positions?
Johnson, who has 18 top-10 finishes in 21 Martinsville starts, said he'd "definitely be smiling in the race car" if that happened – but he wasn't expecting to do so, he added, based on how Keselowski looked in race setup during practice.
"Of course if you can get any Chaser a lap down and then put them in the situation where they're not the lucky dog (free pass) would be fantastic," Johnson said. "So that'll definitely be a priority, but I'm not going to do anything stupid on lap 5 that will affect the outcome of the race to make that happen."
Keselowski qualified 20th at Charlotte and 25th at Kansas, but managed to salvage decent finishes both times (11th and eighth, respectively). Still, Martinsville could be an especially tough place to stage a comeback.
"I don't enjoy qualifying like crap," he said. "That's not what I come to the racetrack to do, but that's been the course as of late.
"I take solace in the fact that the part that matters – the actual racing – my team has done a great job preparing excellent cars and executing on all levels. You focus on what you have that's going right, and that's what we have that's going right."