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McFarling: Harvick, Hamlin have company at the top

McFarling: Harvick, Hamlin have company at the top

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He wasn’t among the top four favorites to win — at least according to the oddsmakers — but it didn’t matter.

Brad Keselowski felt like the favorite heading into Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond, and he competed like it.

This was a statement performance from the Team Penske veteran. In a season where Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — two Richmond aces — are the overwhelming picks to win the championship, neither finished inside the top six in this one. Keselowski led 192 of 400 laps and cruised around the final 48 circuits comfortably up front.

This made good on the promise Keselowski had made earlier in the week, when he said his “expectations going into Richmond [were] really high.”

Rarely, though, do expectations translate to performance so seamlessly.

“These are some of the best drivers in the world, and they’re not easy to beat,” Keselowski said. “I knew we were going to have a great car. I knew I had put a lot of work into what I needed to do as a driver to be really good here and to find a really strong rhythm. If I could pair those things with an execution race, a race with great execution, I felt like we could win it.

“We put all those three together, and here we are. That feels really incredible.”

Keselowski didn’t need any flukes to do this. The yellow flag waved only three times — first at the competition caution, then at the end of each of the first two stages. No crazy wrecks shuffled the field or punted rivals.

The dominant effort signals to the rest of the field that Keselowski, with four wins already this season, deserves to be mentioned right up there with Harvick and Hamlin as a championship contender. His comfort level at short tracks, which he demonstrated again on Saturday night, should help him as the series visits Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix in ensuing weeks.

The Round of 12 has been Keselowski’s exit point in each of the past two seasons. But his race victory Saturday, coupled with his Stage 2 win, gives him six bonus points heading into that phase that starts in Las Vegas, where he finished seventh earlier this season.

“I like the format,” Keselowski said. “I like the tracks, how they line up. I think they fit me personally really well, and I think they fit this team really well. The team is really coming together and continues to click, and we’ll continue to build new knowledge together that we’re applying in a great manner.

“I just feel like things are coming together.”

The 2012 Cup Series champion, Keselowski has made the Championship 4 only once (in 2017) since the move to an elimination format. But his success to date — his 2020 win total is already his highest since 2016 — gives him full confidence he can return there and challenge Harvick and Hamlin.

“I’ve ran really good here on the Cup level for probably the last eight to 10 years,” Keselowski said. “But I’ve had a couple seasons that were great, and the difference between good to great is just all the tiny little things and the details, and I feel like a lot of those details are going our way.”

So it stands to reason he’ll consider himself a favorite again next week and beyond. As for coming close to calling his shot again like he did in Richmond?

“One week at a time,” he said with a smile. “One week at a time.”

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