AUTO PACKAGE: Keselowski believes best is yet to come for Penske team beginning with Kentucky

  • Article by: JENNA FRYER , AP Auto Racing Writer
  • Updated: June 26, 2013 - 1:00 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The defending Sprint Cup champion is winless through the first 16 races of the season, and he's clinging to a spot inside the top-10 in points.

But Brad Keselowski isn't concerned about the fate of the No. 2 Penske Racing team.

"It's human nature to worry when you don't have all the facts," Keselowski said. "I know where we're at as a team, that we could flip a light switch here and be just as strong, if not stronger than ever."

He could be proven right this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, where Keselowski is scheduled to run in all three national series events. He'll race in the Truck Series, Nationwide event and then attempt to defend last year's Sprint Cup Series win.

Keselowski's victory at Kentucky last year was his third of the season, but it opened the gates on a run of 17 top-10 finishes in the final 20 races. In 2011, Keselowski finished seventh at Kentucky in a string of nine top-10 finishes in 11 races that helped him make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in his career.

So Keselowski thinks Kentucky could again be the catapult to his season.

"I think we have some strong tracks for us," he said. "We've got a really good package for (Watkins) Glen, really good package for Kentucky, there's Bristol in August. Indy, I think we're going to be great at."

He's also quick to point there's been a drop-off in performance since NASCAR seized suspension parts from the Penske Racing entries at Texas in April. Before that race, Keselowski was second in points with four top-four finishes in the first six races.

NASCAR docked the team 25 points, took the parts in question, and suspended seven team members for three races. In the time since the Texas infraction, Keselowski has three finishes in the 30s, and seven of nine finishes outside the top-13.

"We haven't executed and I could sit here and bitch and moan about it, that last year this time we had two wins," Keselowski said. "Yes, but we weren't any higher in the standings. I think if you look at our race team's history, July and August are our strong months and we seem to really perform then. We need to keep that trend going."

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RAHAL RECOVERS: Graham Rahal had quite the eventful weekend in Iowa.

After irking the owners of the Iowa Speedway by bringing up supposed rumors that IndyCar wouldn't return there in 2014, Rahal nearly earned his second podium finish of the season.

Rahal stormed to the front to win a qualifying heat race on Saturday, then earned a starting spot of sixth through the final heat event. He pushed and even momentarily overtook eventual winner James Hinchcliffe two-thirds of the way through Sunday's race before salvaging a fifth-place finish.

Though Rahal lost some grip at the end of the race to fall shy of the podium, it was nonetheless a satisfying effort after a string of disappointing finishes.

Rahal was 16th or worse in four of his last six races prior to Iowa.

"I'm really proud of the engineering staff and everyone. For everybody to keep coming back week after week with their chins up means a lot to me. I felt like I could have won the race," Rahal said.

About the only thing Rahal got wrong in Iowa was his belief that IndyCar and Iowa are parting ways.

CEO Mark Miles gathered reporters for an impromptu chat Sunday morning to reiterate IndyCar's support of Iowa. In fact, Miles said that the series and the track are hoping to agree to a multiyear contract before next season.

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BIG BOOST: Jeff Gordon never got a chance to see how strong his car was at Michigan because he was collected in Bobby Labonte's early accident six laps into the race.

The four-time champion finished 39th and dropped to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings.

So his runner-up finish at Sonoma on Sunday was a much-needed shot in the arm for a team that knows it's better than what the results have been showing.

"I'm kind of glad that we came to a road course and broke up the ovals because we sort of needed that," Gordon said. "This will definitely give us a boost, and, hopefully, we can start putting some races together and find that win or two."

Sonoma was Gordon's best finish of the season, and he's gone 19 races without a consecutive top-10. But it helped him gain three spots in the standings, to 13th, where he's trying to either race his way into the top-10 or pick up some wins to make himself eligible for the Chase.

But Gordon doesn't want to hear about the Chase.

"One of the things we need to do more of, me personally, is stop looking at the points," said Gordon. "It seems like every time we get close to the top 10, something happens. I'm going to stop thinking about the points. If we live up to our potential and we don't get caught in some of these silly things that we have been caught up in this year, there's no doubt in my mind we can work our way into the top 10."

Next up is Kentucky, the only active track on the Cup schedule where Gordon has never won.

But he's made progress at Kentucky, finishing fifth last year, and thinks if he can have a solid qualifying effort he might have a shot Saturday night.

"Prior to last year's race, I might have considered this to be one of my worst tracks," said Gordon. "But we had a good car and a good run here last year — one that we want to improve upon. Of course, we have the Generation-6 car here for the first time. We're learning every single week with the new Chevrolet SS, and we're learning every single trip to Kentucky.

"Hopefully, we can put it all together so we can check this one off the list."

___

NBC SPORTS-ARCA: NBC Sports Network is adding more racing to its programming with the addition of four ARCA events in August that will give the second-tier series a greater television presence.

"We couldn't be more excited than to have the opportunity to secure additional exposure of the ARCA Racing Series on NBC Sports Network," said Mark Gundrum, ARCA Vice President for Business Development and Corporate Partnerships. "This opportunity is great for the teams, sponsors and fans of the series."

Three of the four NBC Sports Network events are scheduled to air on Thursday nights, with one event slated for Friday night. The coverage premieres Aug. 1 with an 11 p.m. airing of the Winchester Speedway race.

The race from Berlin Raceway will air Aug. 15 at 11 p.m., and the Madison International Speedway event will air Aug. 29 at 11 p.m.

The event from the one-mile dirt oval at the Illinois State Fairgrounds will air Aug. 23 at 11 p.m.

"We look forward to presenting the excitement of the ARCA Racing Series to motorsports fans on NBC Sports Network for the first time," said Mike Perman, Vice President, Programming, NBC Sports Group.

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