Brad Keselowski hungry to reclaim his place at the top

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Taking a field of the finest stock car drivers on the planet to the proverbial woodshed would give anybody a heaping dose of confidence.

So it went for Brad Keselowski, who after burying the field last Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, declared over his team’s radio that “this feels like championship form to me.”

But those words weren’t just solely derived from the thrill of victory.

After defeating Jimmie Johnson for his first Sprint Cup title in 2012 and then being unable to defend it last year when he failed to make the Chase, Keselowski has aimed to show that he is indeed one of the best drivers this sport has to offer.

His Team Penske crew has responded, giving him fast cars almost every week. And on Saturday night, he emphatically converted that speed into a statement performance at Kentucky, leading 199 of 267 laps en route to his second Sprint Cup win of 2014.

Could that effort prove to be the start of his drive to a second Cup title? Why not? His win at Kentucky in 2012 served that very purpose, after all. Following that particular triumph, he earned two more wins and 16 Top-10s over the final 19 races of that year, which proved enough to hold off Johnson.

Then there’s the fact that half of the 10 Chase tracks are 1.5-mile, intermediate ovals just like Kentucky. You get one guess on what type of track Keselowski’s wins this season have come at.

But perhaps the most important thing in Keselowski’s favor? Experience.

The Michigan native went from the highest of highs in 2012 to the lowest of lows in 2013. Last season, Keselowski could not find the consistency that had helped him become a champion, and it ultimately cost him a spot in the Chase.

There’s no doubt that this past winter had to be humbling for him and the No. 2 team. But it’s also made him more appreciative of being able to have nights like he had on Saturday.

It’s also made him hungry – perhaps as hungry as he’s ever been in NASCAR’s top level. He wants to prove to all of us that he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

“I want to win another championship,” he said in post-race. “I don’t want to just win one. I think I have the team to do it, with Paul and the guys. I have the owner to do it with Roger Penske, and the urgency is now. I don’t want to win one championship and that be it for my career. I’m not going to be happy with that.

“And I want to win another championship, but I don’t want it to be five or ten years from now. I don’t want to be a guy that contends for a championship every three or four years, I want to do it each and every year, and I know that opportunity is here, and it’s present, and I want to make the most of it, and I’m not afraid to communicate that.”

As for the here and now, Keselowski knows it won’t be easy to overcome the Hendrick Motorsports armada. He and Penske teammate Joey Logano have been solid this year, but HMS is still regarded as the strongest team overall in the Cup garage.

Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, noted that it will take an all-around effort to beat them and everyone else.

“I think we look at our program as a whole and look at areas where we can be stronger, where we need to improve, and whether it’s with our aero department or our chassis or the guys working on the cars, the pit crews, we look at it all,” Wolfe said.

“To be able to win another championship, we’ll have to be very good in all those areas, and we’ll continue to evaluate and do what we need to do to be able to be good in all those areas.”

But one area where they’re not lacking is determination. Armed with a sharpened focus and a resolve to take back what was once theirs, Keselowski and his team are looking like a group that will be very dangerous when the Chase for a championship begins.

F1 2017 driver review: Esteban Ocon

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Esteban Ocon

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 31
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P5 (Spain, Mexico)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 87
Championship Position: 8th

A shining star in Mercedes’ junior programme, Esteban Ocon vaulted fellow youngster Pascal Wehrlein in the pecking order to secure a seat at Force India for 2017 – and boy, did he live up to the hype.

Ocon arrived at Force India with half a season of racing under his belt after his outings with Manor late in 2016, but wasted little time in settling in, scoring points on debut in Australia after winning a thrilling three-way fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.

The Frenchman spent much of the year close to teammate Sergio Perez – even if things did get a little too close in Canada, Baku and, finally, Spa, prompting the team to introduce team orders – and impressed the entire paddock with his displays.

While no podium was forthcoming, Ocon was often leading the midfield fight, enjoying three straight finishes ahead of Perez from Japan to Mexico. Given how well Perez is rated on-track in the paddock, to have convincingly beaten him in such fashion did a lot for Ocon’s reputation.

The term ‘Oconsistency’ also came into F1’s dictionary as he set a new record for consecutive finishes from his first race, with his retirement in Brazil ending the streak at 27 grands prix. It was also his first retirement in a single-seater race since the 2014 Macau Grand Prix.

The highlight moment arguably came at Monza, though, when Ocon stuck his Force India third on the grid through torrential rain in qualifying. While he would drop to P6 at the checkered flag, the display nevertheless cemented his place as one of F1’s rising stars.

Mercedes rates Ocon very highly, and with Valtteri Bottas’ future beyond 2018 already being questioned by the paddock, a good season could see the youngster move on up to the top table of F1 for 2019. His progression in the next 12 months will be fascinating to keep track of.

Season High: Lining up P3 on the grid at Monza after a rainy qualifying.

Season Low: Clashing with Perez in Baku, costing Force India a possible podium.