There was a time we didn't know what to do with Brad Keselowski. There was probably even a time when Brad Keselowski didn't know what to do with Brad Keselowski.
But thanks to some patience from a first-class owner in Roger Penske, Keselowski's pure ability to drive a race car, and now his maturation, Keselowski is a legitimate NASCAR Sprint Cup champion contender. He has not only proved it by winning the first race in Chase, and fourth of the season, Sunday at Chicagoland, he has done it in other ways, too.
Penske spoke of Keselowski's maturation in his post-race press conference at Chicagoland Sunday. Penske, who was a Will Power crash away from being an IndyCar champion owner late Saturday night in California made the cross-country trip to get to Chicagoland in time for Sunday's race.
And part of the reason Penske did that is because Keselowski expected it. And, so, Penske, who has a habit of running first-class racing organizations, did his part. But the fact that Keselowski expected his owner to be there, and even told him so, shows that the 28-year-old driver believes there was something worth seeing.
While Keselowski has at times in the past come off as a bit cocky, he seems to have reigned that in just enough to become confident. And sure, if you don't believe you're good enough to go out and win a race if you have decent car, then maybe you should question whether you're doing the right thing. Keselowski's average finish in his first full Sprint Cup season in 2010 was 22.4. That improved to 14.8 last year and is now up to 11.1 as has four wins this season and holds the points lead heading into Sunday.
And while he's still not afraid to rattle some cages on occasion, he's also gotten away from the senseless act of causing crashes on high-speed restrictor-plate tracks.
Keselowski gained some social media fame in the first race of the year, the Daytona 500, which was on a Monday night due to rain all day Sunday. And when the race was red-flagged due to the now famous jet dryer fire, Keselowski used his time well. He took out his phone and went on Twitter and interacted with fans during an event. That's something that not even the most popular athletes can do in other sports. But Keselowski did so, and created a connection with fans.
And while that looked good, and could have been construed as a public relations stunt by some, Penske also indicated Sunday that Keselowski's influence on the team is real. Penske said that Keselowski comes to the team's shop regularly and talks with all the employees, which makes them feel like part of the team. And it's that kind of attitude and leadership that makes employees take maybe a couple of extra minutes to make sure what they are doing is done exactly right.
Also, as Keselowski gets to know the team's employees, and at least takes a little time to understand their jobs, maybe he realizes his performance can help them keep their jobs in these times where sponsorship is difficult to find. So that could gives him just a little extra on the track. Or maybe in his case, he rethinks a situation where he wants to retaliate against a driver who nearly wrecks him, because he knows if he wrecks, too, it not only makes matters worse for him, but those back in the shop,
The other factor in all of this is that Keselowski also owns a NASCAR truck team. And, once you own a team and starting seeing how much the bills are, and what it means when a vehicle gets torn up, that also helps the thought process out on the track, too.
Now, Keselowski may be in the process of winning his first Sprint Cup championship. If he wins Sunday at New Hampshire it will bode well for him. The only two drivers to win the first two races of the Chase are Kurt Busch in 2004 and Tony Stewart last year. They each went on to the win title.
Whether Keselowski will win this Sprint Cup title or not is still an unknown. But we do know is he's going in the right direction.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
After Week One of the Chase, we're off to New Hampshire for Week 2. So, just as Tony Stewart started last year's Chase with two straight victories on the way to the title, the question will now be if Brad Keselowski can do the same thing. Here's a look at who we like for Round 2 of this championship fight as Keselowski likes to call it, that continues Sunday afternoon.
1) Jimmie Johnson - He finished second at Chicagoland while dominating much of the race. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him dominate and win in Loudon, where he has three victories.
2) Tony Stewart - He has three wins and 10 top fives here, so this is an easy pick.
3) Clint Bowyer - If he wants to be considered a serious contender for the title, this is one of the places he needs to win at. He has two victories and three top fives in 13 races at Loudon.
4) Denny Hamlin - He had been running so well before Chicagoland, which has never been a great track for him. Hamlin, one of the favorites coming into the Chase, needs a win to get all the way back to the front here. He has a win and six top five finishes in 13 races at New Hampshire.
5) Ryan Newman - He's not a Chaser but he's usually a factor in the outcome at New Hampshire. In the last five races there he has a win and three top 10 finishes.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - A couple of guys I like, but couldn't pick were Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Gordon has an average finish of 6.2 in the last five races there, but no wins. Kahne also has a win there and is a dangerous, too.
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 1 of the Chase at Chicagoland.
Tony Stewart - 6th. He had a pretty good day considering he started back in 28th.
Denny Hamlin - 16th. He was set to finish ninth before running out of gas on the last lap. That could be some crucial points lost later in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson - 2nd. Continued to be a driver who can dominate much of the race, leading 202 laps this time, but not win at Chicagoland.
Jeff Gordon - 35th. He was running fourth when his throttle stuck and stuck him into the wall.
Kevin Harvick - 12th. Not a bad finish, but was never really a factor on track that he has generally been good at. So one has to wonder if he will be a factor at all during the Chase.
Here's a look at my results after 27 races and 135 picks.
43 top fives
60 top 10s
Grade for the week: C. Johnson could have easily won this race, but as he said, Keselowski was just better at the end. Gordon may have been a contender too had he not found the wall. No matter, we need winners here. That's what matters in the Chase.
One last thing: Seven drivers have 10 or more top five finishes this season, and they are each in the Chase, led by Jimmie Johnson's 13 top-five finishes. Kevin Harvick has the least amount of top-five finishes among Chase drivers this season with four.