Brad Keselowski knows how to hold his ground when the going gets tough. Remember all those run-ins with Carl Edwards? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Is there a little bit of Alan Kulwicki in Brad Keselowski?
Perhaps in more ways than one.
Kulwicki, the underdog who won the 1992 NASCAR championship in a down-to-the-wire upset thriller against big shot teams, was renowned as one of those rare racers who can think as well as drive. He called many of the race day shots from his seat in the car.
Keselowski is having his finest season ever, in this only his third season on the Sprint Cup trail.
And he's taking Jimmie Johnson head to head, door to door. Mr. Five-Time on his way to Six-Time just can't shake Keselowski.
Keselowski's rapidly growing maturity over the past year or so is almost shocking, to those who remember how he and Carl Edwards went at it that season. But his aggressiveness out on the track, well, remember how he won Talladega, when driving part-time for James Finch....
"Of all the roles in professional sports that a driver is most similar to, I would put it right there with an NFL quarterback," Keselowski says.
"There's a certain level of phenomenal talent you must have to achieve to be able to throw a ball down the field. But a large part of it is decision-making. And you find that elite athletics aren't all it takes. It takes more than that.
"You have to be a great decision maker and a great leader."
Brad Keselowski (R) congratulates Jimmie Johnson in victory lane Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now Johnson looks as strong or stronger than ever, but even with two straight playoff wins, in dominating performances, he's still only seven points ahead with two races to go.
By the book, Johnson should have kayoed Keselowski at Martinsville and Texas these past two weeks. But Keselowski, who spots Johnson six years of Sprint Cup experience, and five titles, has continued to defy those odds since the chase opened in Chicago in mid-September.
And as tough and risky as Keselowski played the game in Sunday night's closing miles in Fort Worth, well, even Johnson had to take his own game to another level.
During the chase Keselowski keeps surprising. He surprised by beating Johnson in that closing run at Chicago. He surprised again at Dover.
He surprised yet again with his remarkable recovery at Martinsville.
And he shocked Johnson at Texas by nearly taking both men into the wall late.
"I've joked before about driving in far enough to where I see Elvis, and we went past Elvis," Johnson said.
While Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have predictably spot-on, and even amazing in rallying back from that Kansas crash, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have been stunning in their ability to recovery from problems, or gambles gone awry.
"They do a great job of managing their mistakes, but they still make them, just like we do," Keselowski says of Johnson and Knaus. "You look no further than Kansas.
"Those mistakes are going to happen to everyone. It's how you recover. And they've done a phenomenal job of it... as have we.
"You've got to try to minimize them, and you need a little luck to recover from them. We've both done a great job of that, and that's why we're where we're at in the points."
If Chad Knaus does win this sixth NASCAR championship, will he try for a seventh? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Wolfe and Keselowski have both shown a surprising, and refreshing, willingness to make the bold, aggressive gamble. Most crew chiefs in this sport tend to follow the leader, and follow the book, unwilling to risk making a mistake. Not so these two.
Now that -- like the late-race calls Wolfe and Keselowski made at Martinsville and Texas -- may come back to haunt them, because such good luck can't go on forever. But at the moment those gambles have to be weighing on Knaus and Johnson, perhaps forcing them to second-guess their own moves in advance.
Keselowski's late race call at Martinsville was a surprising gamble with an eye to a win. And so was his late race call at Texas.
Was Knaus surprised?
"Nothing surprises me anymore, to be quite honest," Knaus says.
"I felt it was a gutsy call, for sure (two tires at Texas). It worked midway through the race because everybody was just getting to the end. If the caution hadn't come out (at the end of the Texas 500), it wouldn't have really panned out for them as well as they had hoped. We were catching them pretty quickly.
"But we've been racing conservatively the last couple of weeks. They'll have to continue to be aggressive to swing by us."
Close squeeze for Brad Keselowski. Think Danica Patrick might give him more room next time, or not? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski insists he's had no second thoughts about those gambles: "I stand by all the calls we've made through the chase. They've been great calls.
"I'm more disappointed in others for not making them as well. At Martinsville if one more car stayed out (and not pitted) we would have been able to hold off Jimmie and win the race. At Texas if one or two more cars stay out, we would have been able to hold them off and win the race.
"And if one or two cautions didn't come out at Texas, we win the race. If one or two cautions come out at the end at Charlotte, we win the race."
Certainly Keselowski has been sending a message: "The message we're trying to send is that we're not giving up.
"We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to continue to fight.
"At Texas four times I felt we had control of the finish of the race, and a yellow, or some unfortunate circumstance took that back from us.... and eventually that fifth one, that fifth bad break caught up to us at the end.
"But we sent a message that it's going to take a lot of punches for us to flinch."
It was 20 years ago.....Alan Kulwicki, winning the 1992 championship, against the odds (Photo: NASCAR)
To have a shot at winning the NASCAR championship, conventional wisdom is that a challenger needs to be within five or six finishing spots of the points leader heading into the stock car tour's final race.
Keselowski comes here for the next-to-last race seven points down -- about six or seven finishing spots down (not counting a three-point bonus for winning). So he probably needs to pick up a point or two at least in Sunday's Phoenix 500, to be able to keep the pressure on Johnson at Homestead.
"My goal is to go to the next two races and win," Keselowski says. "We control our own destiny if we do that.
"We had a great run in the spring here, finished fifth, and that was when we weren't even quite as strong as we are now.
"We have an opportunity to win at Homestead, the same type of track -- as far as the asphalt configuration and the tire compound -- as what we've been very successful at with Texas and Chicago. I think that's going to play to our strength.
"You're not going to win races, or win this championship, on your back foot.
"If neither of us catches a bad break, and we're just even, I feel we can outperform them and win the championship."
Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr., back when they were teammates. Wonder if Rick Hendrick has any second thoughts now about letting Keselowski get away? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)