FORT WORTH, Texas -- It's safe to say, it's been a good week for Brad Keselowski.
Last weekend at Bristol, Tenn., the team he now has part-ownership in -- Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing with driver Chris Buescher -- earned its first race trophy since he joined the organization this year.
And now, only a few days later, Keselowski answered that positive momentum with his first pole position in the year since he became an owner on the team.
"It's certainly a lot of progress,'' Keselowski said. "You do things in this sport and it takes six to eight months to be noticed. It takes months and months of hard work for it all to come together and it's super painful."
Keselowski put his No. 6 RFK Ford Mustang on the pole for Sunday's AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a lap of 188.990 mph around the 1.5-mile Texas high banks -- marking his first pole position since the 2019 season. However, Keselowski reminded that the series didn't hold qualifying sessions during the 2020 COVID-19 season.
This is the 2012 series champion Keselowski's 18th career pole. He is looking for his first NASCAR Cup Series win at Texas Motor Speedway.
Keselowski's former Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, will start alongside him on the first row. Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron and Richard Childress Racing's Tyler Reddick will start their Chevrolets from the second row.
Six Playoff cars advanced to Final Qualifying on Saturday morning. In addition to Logano and Byron, current championship leader Chase Elliott was sixth fastest. Denny Hamlin (eighth), Kyle Larson (ninth) and Daniel Suarez (10th) rounded out the Second Round qualifiers. Austin Cindric, who was 11th quickest, was the top qualifying rookie.
"Obviously, very proud to show speed,'' Keselowski said, noting he has to remember to stop sometimes and reflect on the progress.
"Now it's actually starting to show up. It's been a painful journey, but a good one.''
Richard Childress Racing swept opening practice at Texas. Although just eliminated from Playoff contention, Austin Dillon -- a 2020 Texas winner -- and Reddick were the fastest two cars in practice with Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet turning a fast lap of 187.643 mph. Hendrick Motorsports' Alex Bowman, Logano and Petty GMS Racing's Erik Jones rounded out the Top 5 in practice.
The result of such a long NASCAR Cup Series winner's list in 2022 -- which features so many non-championship eligible race winners -- has only increased the suspense and intensity of the Playoff standings, which go into Round 2 now separated by only 34 points from leader Elliott to 12th place Austin Cindric.
And with the list of "new" winners amid a contender list of "consistency," many of the very drivers competing for the big trophy say they don't know who the odds-on driver to beat may be just yet.
Perennial championship favorite Hamlin, who struggled this season to stay among the Top 15 in points despite a pair of victories, seems to be upping his game in time for the Playoffs. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Darlington, S.C. and Kansas and then a ninth place showing at Bristol last weekend.
"I don't think that there's a championship favorite,'' reigning champion Kyle Larson said. "Chase (Elliott) is getting through the first round, it wasn't a great first round for his standards, his team's and what they had for points going in. So, I feel like for him, making through the round and resetting -- as long as he can get through this round, I think he's still probably still the favorite.''
Obviously as a former champion and the current championship leader, Elliott's name was raised as a favorite, but so was a young driver in only his second Playoff. Joe Gibbs Racing's Christopher Bell earned the most points among the championship slate in the opening race and while many Playoff drivers insisted there was no overwhelming favorite, Bell's name came up a lot.
Bell, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had the best first round among the original 16 Playoff drivers. He was the only one to earn all Top-5 finishes in the opening round -- fifth place at Darlington, S.C., third place at Kansas -- before leading a season-high 143 laps for a fourth place at Bristol in last week's first-round elimination race.
"I think Bell has shown so far in the Playoffs that he's really strong,'' Larson said, adding, "but I don't think you can pick a favorite until you get through this round because whoever the favorite is right now, could easily not make it into the next round just because how wild this round is.
"I think three weeks from now, you'll be able to pick a better [championship] favorite. But right now, there's so many unknowns, as far as craziness that's going to happen.''
Larson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman agreed.
"There are a couple of guys that have been really consistent through the Playoffs, but other than that I don't think there is (an odd-on favorite),'' Bowman said.
"Anyone can make it happen still and hopefully it's us at the end of the year, but it's cool. I think this car has created a lot of parity right now. Different teams have different strengths right now, which is pretty cool to see.''
BLANEY APPEAL EXPLAINED
The No. 12 Penske Racing team with driver Ryan Blaney was issued a strong penalty after an uncontrolled tire last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway -- the loss of his crew chief Jonathan Hassler for four weeks as well as a pair of key crew members.
So the team has appealed the penalty and until NASCAR hears the Penske team's argument and makes a final decision, Blaney will have all his regular teammates working in the pits this weekend at Texas.
"I think it's important to keep those guys for this week, we all know how important pit stops are here and how hard it is to pass, and strategy will come into play,'' Blaney said. "It's good to have Jonathan on the box and good to have those guys in the pits. It was good to keep those guys here for this week and we'll see how the rest of that goes.''
Blaney will start his No. 12 Ford from the 14th position on the grid. He won at Texas earlier this year in the NASCAR All-Star Race.
Denny Hamlin spoke about the news he will be swapping pit crews with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch -- a move made by the team in advance of Sunday's race. Hamlin said two of the "new" pit crew members were on his team last year, so there is a bit of familiarity.
"We don't enter the box that differently, when you think about what could be the variation between me and Kyle the way we enter the box is pretty similar so I think it should be pretty seamless for everyone,'' Hamlin said.
"It's certainly tough for those guys (the pit crew he started the season with),'' he continued. "I hate it because I love their attitude, swagger all that about my 11-team. Certainly, they are as important to this championship run as anyone.
"But we had to do something different. ... this was kind of a JGR decision and they felt like this was the best avenue to getting the quickest results in the shortest amount of time, just replacing an entire team rather than one person or another.''
Larson has celebrated wins in every form of racing he's competed in and even hoisted the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy. But the 30-year-old Californian's face lit up when talking about the special call he received from one of his racing heroes, three-time Indy 500 winner and longtime Fort Worth resident Johnny Rutherford.
Rutherford called Larson this week in hopes of meeting up while the NASCAR Cup Series competed at Texas Motor Speedway. Larson, who has been competing in Christopher Bell's "C Bell's Micro Mania" micro sprint event all week, said he got Rutherford's voicemail and looks forward to seeing him in person this weekend.
"He left me a voicemail and the first thing I did was I copied the voicemail and sent it to my dad and (public relations representative) Jon Edwards,'' Larson said, smiling.
"It was super cool that Johnny Rutherford had gotten my number and wanted my autograph. So that was pretty neat and I look forward to meeting up with him here this weekend and getting another photo op.''
--By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.