- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A year ago, Brad Keselowski's run in the Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway had a feel-good quality to it. Having grown up two hours from the track, the Michigan native was getting a chance to prove himself with JR Motorsports, and that gave fans a reason to care.
Now those fans -- and any he's added as a full-time driver for JR Motorsports this season -- have a much greater rooting interest, as Keselowski's in position to make a run for the series championship. Sure, it'll take some work, but after turning what started as a limited opportunity into the chance of a lifetime, ruling Keselowski out could be a mistake.
Entering Saturday's Carfax 250 (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN 360), Keselowski finds himself 128 points out of the lead with 11 races remaining. Tracking down a seasoned veteran such as Clint Bowyer won't be easy, but Keselowski appears undaunted -- saying he's extremely happy to be sitting in second, with defending champion Carl Edwards in third, 175 points back.
"We've got our eyes on the prize of getting to the top spot, and that's what we want to do. We want to run for the championship and contend for it. I think we can do that," Keselowski said. "We've got to start plugging away and get 15-20 points a race to have a shot at Clint in the final 10 races.
"We're going to have to dig hard. I think we've been running well enough on the mile-and-a-half tracks to certainly gain some ground there. We need to execute on those tracks and improve our short-track program to make it happen."
Keselowski thinks things started heading in the right direction at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May and continued through Gateway before he struggled at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis. Road-course racing is hardly his forte, but he persevered and now hopes to get back on track with ovals making up the rest of the schedule.
A tough race or two for Bowyer would make things easier, but even if that doesn't happen, Keselowski knows it's far too early to be ruled out.
"I was reading something the other day about Alan Kulwicki when he won his [Cup] championship in 1992. He wrecked out at Dover with six races to go and he was about 280 points behind and came back to win the championship," Keselowski said. "So being only 128 behind Clint is not the end of the world. We need to race to win, and if we can win some races, we can close that gap really quickly."
In three Nationwide Series races at the 2-mile oval in Michigan's Irish Hills, Bowyer has finishes of 30th, 12th and 10th. The good news is that he has improved each season, but cracking the top 10 is this weekend's goal.
"Michigan hasn't been one of my best tracks, but I think we've got a lot better of a car now than we did when we raced there last year," Bowyer said. "We've given up some points over the last few weeks so we need to get back to business and work on padding our points lead."
Bowyer has also struggled in Sprint Cup Series races at Michigan, as he's never finished higher than 16th in five career Cup starts, though a late-race engine failure in August 2006 robbed him of a top-5 finish. Since then, though, he's struggled in his last three Cup starts.
For whatever reason, it's simply a track he hasn't adapted to.
"Typically, on a big track like Michigan or Atlanta, where you can move around and carry a lot of speed, we usually run well," Bowyer said. "I like tracks like Michigan where you can mix it up and pass on the top or the bottom and try different things, but for some reason we haven't been able to find the right balance or the right level of grip to run well."
Bowyer admits past frustrations get in a driver's head, but said he approaches each race as a new opportunity.
Even though he doesn't have nearly the experience that Bowyer does at MIS, Keselowski knows the track presents its share of challenges.
I like tracks like Michigan where you can mix it up and pass on the top or the bottom and try different things, but for some reason we haven't been able to find the right balance or the right level of grip to run well.
-- Clint Bowyer
"Michigan is a track where you never know exactly what you're going to get with it. It seems like whenever you work on handling then you need power and need to take drag out of your car," Keselowski said. "Then you work on drag and you need handling. You work on both of those and get both right and it ends up being a gas-mileage race.
"You're never sure exactly how that race is going to play out, which makes it challenging. It's a driver's racetrack because you can move around on it -- it's nice and wide. In the Nationwide car, it's a really big drafting track. With the tapered-spacer package we've got we'll really draft well there. You'll probably see speeds pick up in the race, maybe even over qualifying."
A strong finish would mean a lot to Keselowski, who grew up watching father Bob and uncle Ron Keselowski drive at the track.
"Michigan is important to me. I remember being really young and watching my dad win an ARCA race there [in 1992] and thinking about how cool that was," Brad Keselowski said. "Now I'm starting to get to the point where I'm starting to get some recognition from my friends and family for what I do, and it'd be really cool to get a win in front of them."
Especially since a win would move Keselowski a little closer to Bowyer in the points race heading into the year's final 10 races.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Brad Keselowski has himself within striking distance of Nationwide Series points leader Clint Bowyer. Now he hopes to ride the home-state fans in Michigan even closer, writes Mark Ashenfelter.