CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Winning, we've been told since the beginning of the year, is all that matters now in NASCAR.
A win should earn a driver a coveted berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Multiple victories would give a driver valuable bonus points to be used when seeding the Chase field.
Brad Keselowski wants those bonus points. He's already got the one victory needed to put him in the title hunt, and now it's about separating himself from the field.
Yet there seemed to be some questioning, criticism and second-guessing after his failed strategy to win Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Keselowski dominated the race and seemed headed to an easy win until debris — a hot dog wrapper? a napkin? let's just call it garbage from the grandstand — somehow found its way to the front grille of Keselowski's car. It's a common occurrence in racing, where properly disposing of trash is not a common occurrence, and the results can wreak havoc on a race car.
That's the position Keselowski found himself in during the closing laps at Pocono, where his shot at what had seemed to be a sure victory was suddenly in question. Debris on the grille causes engines to overheat, and drivers don't have a ton of time to figure out a way to knock the garbage off the nose. As temperatures rise, the engine begins to lose some of its power, and if it gets hot enough, the engine will blow.
From Keselowski's view inside the cockpit of the No. 2 Ford, he couldn't win the race with the debris on his car. Either the engine was going to break, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to run him down.
"I think I was going to get passed because I was really down on power, down the straightaway," Keselowski said. "I don't know. I think so, but it's hard to say."
So Keselowski tried to get the debris off his car by running behind Danica Patrick in the hope that air coming off her lapped car would blow the garbage away. Only she didn't seem to know what he was doing and appeared to try to get out of the way of the leader.
He misjudged his move, lost momentum, and Earnhardt chased him down for the lead. Keselowski's only hope was to catch Earnhardt and get close enough to the new leader to free the debris so that he could he could attempt to get back to the front.
It didn't work. Earnhardt cruised to the victory, Keselowski settled for second, and there was plenty of head-scratching about his decision.
The second-guessing from fans and commentators is ludicrous. In a winning-is-everything environment, Keselowski is being criticized for trying to win.
Even Earnhardt conceded Keselowski did what he had to do.
"I don't know what his temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that," Earnhardt said. "That had to have been the toughest choice for him. I felt really bad for Brad to be honest, in that particular instance to see him in such a situation that he had to be that desperate.
"He's the kind of guy that would have just put his foot in it and tried to make the motor last. But apparently it was just more than he could ask for the engine to do."
Keselowski saw he had no other option than to try to force the issue.
"I was trying to do something to help my car out, and I knew it (the engine) was going to break, and I was going to get passed," he said. "I was trying to make whatever move I could do to help clean it off."
His car made it to the end of the race. Why not just roll the dice and push it until the engine blows?
In Keselowski's educated opinion, his fate was inevitable.
"We weren't going to make it," he shrugged. "It was already starting to (blow). It is just one of those deals."
The circumstances surrounding Tony Stewart's botched race Sunday are different from Keselowski's situation. But the motive — winning — remains the same.
Stewart had cycled into the lead with 48 laps to go when he was caught speeding on pit road, costing him a shot at his first win of the season. Stewart was pushing hard in an effort to make it back to Victory Lane.
"One hundred percent driver error," Stewart said. "Great race car, just the driver screwed it up this week."
Keselowski also admits he made an error in how he attempted to get the debris off his car.
Mistakes happen. The driver and the team pick themselves up and move on to the next one, as both Keselowski and Stewart indicated they'd do.
Since when, though, do we fault them for doing what they thought was needed to win? It is the only thing that matters anymore.