When Brad Keselowski qualified 32nd for Sunday's NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway, it seemed as if the vultures were suddenly circling over his championship hopes.
How could Keselowski, who entered Martinsville with a seven-point lead in the Chase, possibly hope to defeat Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin at the best track for both those drivers?
It seemed entirely possible Keselowski would finish outside the top 15, which would not only force him to relinquish the points lead but suddenly trail Johnson by a significant margin.
Keselowski did lose the points lead on Sunday, but hardly in the way most observers expected. He finished sixth and lost only nine points to the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion – not too shabby in the overall Chase picture – and now has a chance to race Johnson straight up for his first series title.
"It feels like you live another day," Keselowski said. "It's like being in war and surviving a battle. It's not necessarily a win, you're just happy to still do it."
Two of the three tracks remaining – Texas and Homestead – are tracks where Keselowski said he has a high degree of confidence he can not only hang with Johnson, but out-run him on speed. Phoenix is cause for concern, but Keselowski said his team can win the championship by besting the No. 48 team in two of the three.
"I believe we can do this, I really do," he said. "We've got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we're doing all the right things. And if you do the right things for long enough, good things will happen to you."
Keselowski appeared confident on Friday despite his poor qualifying result, and he said Sunday his attitude was not a front. Qualifying, he said, "is not a great indicator of how you're going to race." He knew the team would be able to move up in the running order, as it steadily did throughout Sunday's race while making no mistakes.
"I'm confident if we keep having fast race cars, it's going to be a fun run down the stretch here," he said.
During the penultimate caution of Sunday's race, Keselowski made the call to stay out instead of come to pit road. But his gamble was somewhat thwarted when only one other car decided on the same strategy, meaning there was no buffer between himself and fresh tires.
"We needed about three or four more cars to stay out," he said. "... I'm not upset about that. That's just the breaks. We haven't caught any good breaks over the last three or four weeks. When we do, and you match it with the execution we have, we're going to be really tough."
Ultimately, Keselowski was pleased with a solid finish but said he knew his team can't keep settling for "break-even weekends."
If the No. 2 team wants the championship, its driver knows he must get to Victory Lane at some point in the final three races.