What’s happened to defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski?

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After a great start to the season, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski has had nothing but struggles over much of the last nine races.

First off, after being as high as first in the standings earlier in the season, the Michigan native fell four spots, from ninth to a season-low 13th place in the rankings after finishing 33rd at Kentucky on Sunday.

Keselowski is now 145 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson. But on the plus side, Keselowski is only 14 points out of the top 10 (teammate Joey Logano sits in that position, 131 points behind Johnson).

Keselowski began the season with a pair of third-place and two other fourth-place finishes in the first four races. But in the last nine races, starting with Richmond, he has four finishes of 30th or worse (Richmond, Darlington, Charlotte and Kentucky), three other finishes between 15th and 21st (Talladega 15th, Pocono 16th, Sonoma 21st), a 12th-place showing (Michigan) and just one top10 outing (fifth at Dover).

And let’s not forget that Keselowski has not won even one race on the Sprint Cup side this season.

By comparison, he had three wins by this point last season (including winning at Kentucky), which would stake him to an eventual series-high five wins across the entire 2012 campaign en route to his first Sprint Cup title.

While Keselowski had lots to boast about last season, there’s not been a great deal up to this point. After Sunday’s race, about the only positive thing he had to say after being clipped by Kurt Busch on Lap 47, spending over 100 laps in the garage to repair the damage on his race car, and then managing to return to the event in its latter stages was the fact he finished 33rd instead of potentially as low as 40th (which is likely where he would have wound up if it hadn’t of been for his team repairing the damage to his car).

“It is a wreck,” Keselowski said of the incident with Busch. “Wrecks happen. It takes a chain of events to get there. We had the bottom lane on two or three restarts in a row and got shuffled back a little bit. We were trying to (be) patient because it looked like we will get the whole race in before rain and there was no reason to be very aggressive. Apparently I am the only one that got that memo. It is one of those deals.

“I’m really proud of my guys and how hard they worked to get me back out. We picked up seven spots so it was definitely worth all the work. We just need to start finishing where we deserve to be.”

There’s an interesting irony to all this, though: Keselowski finished second in the trucks series race on Thursday night at Kentucky, rallied to win the Nationwide Series race on Friday, and then had such terrible luck in Sunday’s rain-delayed event.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”