Brad Keselowski seeking to recapture championship mojo

Jerry Markland

After failing to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase, Brad Keselowski is seeking redemption in 2014.

Twelve months ago it was anything but a quiet offseason for Team Penske. Whether it was preparing to defend their first Sprint Cup championship, a switch in manufacturers or Joey Logano joining the team, there were plenty of happenings to keep everyone on their proverbial toes.

There are no dramatic changes this offseason. Instead, the focus is getting back to the basics and getting both cars to operate at a high level and qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, something Penske hasn't done the last two years.

2013 in the Review

At this time a year ago the conventional thinking was Penske would be led by Keselowski, who was considered a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Expectations for Logano varied.

Few foresaw what played out.

After a strong start to the year with seven top 10 finishes in the first eight races, Keselowski's season quickly unraveled. He and his team became immersed in suspensions, a multitude of points penalties and ill-timed parts failures, and never came close to replicating their early season form.

When the Chase began, it did so without its defending champion. Keselowski joined Tony Stewart (2006) as the only drivers to miss the playoffs a year after winning the championship. Not even a late-season win at Charlotte could salvage what was a substandard season for Keselowski and the No. 2 team.

Logano dealt with many of the same issues that hindered his teammate, but produced a far different season. In 2013, the driver once heralded as NASCAR's next superstar produced the best season of his five-year career, winning once and earning his first Chase berth.

Logano asserted himself more both on and off the track, no longer content to allow others to push him around. He also brought some much-needed stability to the No. 22 team, which had shuffled through three drivers over the previous two years.

2013 Driver Lineup

Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Mille Lite Ford); Joey Logano (No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford)

Key Changes

Unlike a year ago, there is no manufacturer switch and no new drivers to integrate. Paul Wolfe returns to lead the No. 2 team, while Todd Gordon returns to the top of Logano's pit box.

Biggest Offseason Question

Is Keselowski the driver who steamrolled to the title in 2012, or the driver who flopped defending his title? The answer is certainly the former, but after a season when he won just once and was more known for what he did off the track than on, it is a fair question to ask.

That's not to say that Keselowski's struggles in 2013 were entirely his fault. A transition from Dodge to Ford was anything but seamless, and was further compounded by Ford's continued issues in the horsepower and aero departments. Keselowski was also hampered when it was discovered that Penske was using unapproved (i.e. illegal) suspension pieces, and his crew chief and lead engineer were suspended for a couple of weeks.

The onus is on Keselowski and Wolfe to not only put last season behind them, but refocus and learn the hard lessons that come with underachieving. It wasn't too long ago when they were being lauded as NASCAR's next great driver-crew chief dynasty. Now it's up to them to show that last season was a mere blip and nothing more pronounced.

Outlook

To achieve success, the No. 2 team has to avoid distractions, especially those that are self-imposed. Too often last year Keselowski appeared to be consumed in affairs that he could have easily sidestepped. Most notably, he accused Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs of stealing key personnel, to the point that Roger Penske had to issue an apology and smooth things over.

Always a driver at his best when he has a chip on his shoulder, Keselowski will have no shortage of material to prove his detractors wrong in 2014 and to demonstrate that last year was an aberration. The best way to do this is by procuring multiple victories and a finish near the top of the standings, all of which is more than attainable. Penske has excellent equipment, Keselowski has shown the ability to win on any kind of track and Wolfe may be the best crew chief in any garage outside of Chad Knaus.

Joining Keselowski in the Chase should be Logano, who unlike last year will be expected to be a playoff participant. Unlike his teammate, Logano is not a championship contender, but he is capable of winning multiple races, which is something he has never done previously. The 23-year-old excels on the intermediate speedways that litter the schedule, and is also stout on the flat ovals at Loudon, Phoenix and Pocono.

Last year, Logano took a big step. He needs to take another one in 2014.

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