Brad Keselowski ready to prove 2012 championship was not a fluke

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brad Keselowski had a memorable season in 2012 and one he’d just as soon forget in 2013.

Such is the unpredictable nature of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from one season to the next. While he was the talk of the sport after winning the Cup championship in 2012, after a disappointing 2013, Keselowski is bound and determined not to be perpetually known as a one-hit wonder going forward.

As in one-time champion – a.k.a. one and done.

“Not winning the championship is disappointing,” Keselowski said Wednesday during the third day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “That’s my goal, I want to win the championship, I want to win races. If you’re looking at it in a whole season sense, to not win a championship is absolutely disappointing and it should be. And I don’t want anyone working on my team that’s not disappointed when you don’t win a championship.”

Keselowski and Team Penske have made numerous changes to bounce back from 2013 to a more successful 2014. They’ve done a wholesale facelift of the pit crew (only two members remain from 2012’s unit), added an “athletic director” to monitor the workouts of crew members, and have done considerable realignment within the mechanical department to minimize what were far too many broken parts and strategy missteps last season.

“You have to compare your success to your failures and try to understand the difference,” Keselowski said. “There wasn’t one (failure last season), there was a series across the board, and it’s our job to resurrect that and I think the approach has been so to do that.”

The differences between his championship season of 2012 and failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2013 are stark.

In bringing Penske his first Cup championship in three decades of trying in 2012, Keselowski won five races, had 13 top five and 23 top 10 finishes in the 36-race schedule.

In 2013, however, he won just one race (and that didn’t come until the 31st event of the season, at Charlotte), had only nine top five and 16 top 10 showings. He also failed to make the Chase and defend his previous year’s title, eventually winding up as the highest finishing driver that didn’t make the Chase (14th place).

Still, that was little consolation to the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.

“We had situations out of our control that we didn’t execute on,” Keselowski said. “It seemed like at any given point of the year, we were this close, but not there. We had too many mechanical failures, we certainly addressed those. … We had too many issues on pit road and I had too many issues behind the wheel. If we (improve) any one of them, we feel we’re right where we need to be a championship contender.”

Team owner Roger Penske concurs.

“We’ve here to win the championship,” Penske said. “We’ve got some work to do. The competition has never been tougher. Our goal is to be at that head table in Las Vegas in 2014 (at the NASCAR Awards Banquet).

“(Last season was) a big disappointment. We knew we were better than we showed. We didn’t have the reliability with the pit crew, the car and the engine. To me, I think it’s a learning curve, I think it makes (Keselowski) better because he has to come back now and show people it wasn’t just a fluke in 2012.”

With Keselowski and Joey Logano (who finished eighth in the Chase last season when Keselowski faltered) as the team’s two representatives in the Sprint Cup Series and Ryan Blaney running a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series, youth is definitely being served at Team Penske this season.

“As I look at 2014, consistency and continuity are key from the standpoint of our team,” Penske said. “And when I think of our drivers, I think of youth. You take our two Cup drivers and then you put Ryan Blaney in there and (the average age is) 24 years old. These drivers have the ability to win, they were winners in their series in 2013 and we expect a lot in 2014.”

And right at the top of the list of expecting a lot – especially from himself – is Keselowski.

“Last year, I feel like I ran some of the best races of my life, and in a lot of ways I was a better driver than I was in 2012,” Keselowski said. “But this is not an individual sport. You can very easily argue that the team side carried me for part of 2012, and vice-versa in 2013. It’s a team sport and it’s a collective evolving. It was our responsibility to get it done and we didn’t. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think we can. I think we can.

“It’s a new opportunity. We’re ready to get going here in 2014 and I do think we have a lot of continuity. We think we’re where we need to be to run for another championship. I feel like we’re reloaded.”

Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”