- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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FONTANA, Calif. -- Driver No. 88 hopes a string of 8s will help him become the Nationwide Series champion in 2008. His next chance to move closer to that goal will come Saturday night in the Camping World 300 at Auto Club Speedway.
Brad Keselowski notched his second career win last Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he didn't really make any headway in terms of closing in on points leader Clint Bowyer, who finished second. Carl Edwards' early crash enabled Keselowski to move into second, though, and he now trails by 122 points with nine races remaining.
At this point in the season, Keselowski knows his mission is clear.
"We need to keep getting top-10 finishes and work toward having an average finish of eighth for the year," Keselowski said. "The start of the season wasn't so good for us. We had a few bad finishes right at the start of the year, so we need to do better now to help make up for that. I believe that about an eighth-place average is what it's going to take to win the championship this year."
Keselowski is in his first full season in the series. If he is able to win the title over the more experienced Bowyer and Edwards, it'll be clear where his championship run began. Starting with the Memorial Day weekend race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Keselowski has two wins, seven top-5s and 11 top-10s in 14 races.
I've said all along that this championship isn't going to come down to who wins the most races; it's going to be about who makes the least amount of mistakes, and that's exactly how it's playing out.
-- Clint Bowyer
He's put the JR Motorsports No. 88 Chevy in front for 269 laps and hasn't finished worst than 19th. That's the only time in that stretch when he hasn't been in the top 12.
That said, he's still considered the underdog, and Keselowski knows he won't be a favorite at the 2-mile oval in Southern Cal.
"Carl is going to be the guy to beat this weekend. He was struggling earlier this year and then at Michigan he killed everyone," Keselowski said. "He's going to be just as strong in California. I think Clint and I are pretty equal, so my team and I need to do whatever we can to maintain our place in the standings and capitalize on every opportunity we have to gain points.
"We're coming down to the last few races and every point counts. Every position is one step closer or one step back from the championship."
With three top-5s in six Nationwide Series starts at Auto Club Speedway, Bowyer has had more success than Keselowski at the venue; Keselowski was involved in a scary wreck that required a trip to the hospital last year, and he finished 32nd there in February after losing the transmission in his Chevy.
Bowyer hopes to gain points on his closest pursuer this weekend.
"I enjoy the racetrack. I think the groove is starting to open up a little bit and that makes for better racing," Bowyer said. "We've run pretty well out there, but we've come up a little short when it comes to racing for the win. We've got a brand-new car we're taking out there, so I'm excited to get going and see what we've got."
Bowyer is trying not to focus on the championship just yet, but he admits that's not easy to do.
"I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't paying attention to the points. But, at the same time, we just need to keep doing what we've been doing and kick it up a notch like we did last week at Bristol," Bowyer said. "The owners' points are all of a sudden back within reach [after Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 team was docked 150 points], so a lot of things are happening.
"I've said all along that this championship isn't going to come down to who wins the most races; it's going to be about who makes the least amount of mistakes, and that's exactly how it's playing out."
Edwards, meanwhile, just wants to get back on the right track after excessive brake heat led to a blown tire at Bristol. The defending series champion is 241 points out, and time is growing short.
"I can't wait to run on another 2-mile oval. I really enjoy running at Fontana, because it's super fast and very similar to Michigan," Edwards said of a track where he won two weeks ago. "It has a lot of room to race. Our team has had a lot of success there, and we are very determined to have a good run ... and start digging into the overall points lead."
Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer knows this weekend is vital for Edwards' success.
"We have slipped a little in the points, but Carl is phenomenal at Fontana," Blickensderfer said. "I am very confident we can win this weekend. Our [Roush Fenway Racing] Ford Fusion will be very fast and sets up nicely for the track.
"Our pit crew has been good in recent weeks, but in order to make a move in the points, they have to be stellar. It is going to take a total team effort to reach our ultimate goal of a championship. This weekend will be a true test of what this team is made of."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Brad Keselowski has been one of the most consistent drivers in the Nationwide Series the last three months. Too bad Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards keep getting in the way, writes Mark Ashenfelter.