NASCAR Texas Motor Speedway preview: Can Brad Keselowski keep pace with Jimmie Johnson?

Jerry Markland

Brad Keselowski doesn't seem to mind being given short shrift, even when it comes to gauging his chances of hoisting the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy three races from now. The underdog label seems to suit him well.

While Keselowski's four-week hold on the series lead is gone -- left in the hands of five-time series champ Jimmie Johnson -- his motivation is in ample supply.

The next step in Keselowski's quest comes this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, site of the AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), round 8 of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs.

While the No. 2 Penske Racing team in its current form is at a clear deficit in the experience department compared to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, the pairing of Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe has produced dynamic results -- eight wins -- in just two seasons together at the Sprint Cup level.

"We like our role in this Chase," Keselowski said. "While we aren't being overlooked by any means, there are many who think that we are still too young of a team to seriously challenge the 48 team (Johnson). We like it that way. In reality, we are a very good race team that is primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway."

Even though Johnson stormed to victory at Martinsville Speedway last weekend to snatch a two-point edge in the series standings, Keselowski's career-best sixth on NASCAR's shortest track likely counts as a moral win. He'll need more of the same this weekend at Texas, another trouble-spot track.

While 1.5-mile speedways have been a positive this year for the No. 2 team, the Fort Worth layout has historically not been kind to Keselowski. He has yet to secure a top-10 finish in eight tries at Texas and his 36th-place finish there because of fuel-system issues in April stands as his worst result of the 2012 season.

The chassis Keselowski's Penske team will bring to Texas was last driven to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire. Johnson will compete in the car he last raced at Charlotte last month, when he notched a third-place run.

Clint Bowyer -- who ranks third in the standings, 26 points off the lead -- has some ground to gain if he's going to remain a threat for his first Sprint Cup title. He'll be competing in a proven winner the next two weeks -- his Texas car prevailed at Charlotte in October, and his car for Phoenix took the checkered flag at Richmond in September.

"All I can do is worry about running well and putting ourselves in position to win races every week," Bowyer said. "Bad luck is not something I can really wish upon the other guys in front of us or even worry about. Yes, we are going to need some help from the other guys to stay in this deal. ... Even after winning Charlotte we were still 20-something points out and we're going to need some help to catch these guys."

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