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Who knew: Kes has come long way to lead Chase

September 23, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Brad Keselowski has come from his days as a kid trying to hold down a ride to holding down the Chase lead in no time. (Getty)

LOUDON, N.H. -- Who knew?

Who knew that Brad Keselowski would develop into the Nationwide Series champion in 2010?

"I'm thrilled to be where we're at right now. Not just in the standings but in general -- just the vibe and the motions that you see in the people you're surrounded with. ... We're a team capable of getting the job done, and I believe that. "

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

Who knew that he would have eight Sprint Cup victories on his resume -- as many as Michael Waltrip, Juan Montoya and Marcos Ambrose combined -- by age 28?

Who knew that he'd have seven of those wins in the last two seasons, finish fifth in Cup Series points in 2011 and emerge as a legitimate title contender in 2012, not to mention the standard bearer for Roger Penske Racing?

Not Jeff Gordon, who remembers Keselowski as the skinny youngster looking for seat time.

"I always knew he was talented, but I think he's done a lot more with his talent than I ever thought he could," Gordon admits. "He's gained confidence in what he's doing. He's brought that over to Penske."

Sure, Keselowski had demonstrated potential, driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide Series team. He'd even filled in at Hendrick Motorsports, driving the No. 25 GoDaddy car six times in 2009 when he also won his first Cup race for owner James Finch.

But this?

"I think Penske needed somebody that could lead that group to the next level," Gordon said. "...Who would have thought that would be Brad Keselowski?"

Time will tell if Keselowski will forever be known as the driver that Hendrick Motorsports let get away.

He got the chance at Penske, taking over for David Stremme at the tail end of the 2009 season, and now he's run with it to the point where he has established himself as threat to Hendricks' six-year run of championship dominance with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart's keenly-affiliated team.

"You have to be impressed with what he's done," said Gordon, who sits on the pole for Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "I was certainly impressed with what he did last week, that's for sure."

Johnson had a front row seat when Keselowski roared out of the pits to lead the final 26 laps of the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway -- a mile-and-a-half track where success is considered a precursor for Chase expectations.

Johnson, who had already dominated 172 laps, seemed surprised by Keselowski's late-race superiority, but not by his team.

"At Chicago, I felt like the No. 2 was going to be strong and he certainly was," Johnson said. "He certainly has a great feel for the race car. I think the relationship he has with Paul [Wolfe, crew chief] is a big part of their success. People, at times, underestimate the power of the people that work on a race team. It's key to have that driver/crew chief pairing. Brad and Paul are a great example."

No argument from Keselowski who senses he's in the right place at the right time.

" I'm thrilled to be where we're at right now," he says. "Not just in the standings, but in general -- just the vibe and the motions that you see in the people you're surrounded with. I'm just really proud of everybody I'm around and really thankful for the opportunities that I have. I think we're a pretty happy group right now.

"We're a team capable of getting the job done, and I believe that," he said.

Keselowski, tied with Denny Hamlin at four Cup victories this season, is wise enough to know that a single win does not a championship make. He says that lesson was hammered home by vice president of competition Ken Howes when he was at Hendrick.

"He said something that I thought was really, really profound and really smart," Keselowski recalled. "That is to never believe your own press clippings, good or bad. You're probably not as good as people say you are some days and you're probably not as bad as people say you are on some days."

But if numbers matter more than opinion, there is no disputing just how good Keselowski is at this point in time. One race into the Chase, he owns a three-point lead over Johnson and an eight-point cushion on Stewart.

"It's great," he joked after qualifying 15th for Sunday's race. "I feel like I can come here, finish dead last and only be like 30-something points behind."

In truth, Keselowski has no intentions of finishing last or anywhere close at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

"I [don't] think you can have a bad finish [in the Chase] and win the championship,." he said."

Keselowski understands the importance of this week. He has struggled at Dover International Speedway, the next stop on the Cup schedule.

Although he's had great success in the Nationwide Series at NHMS (a win, three consecutive poles and five top-10s in as many starts), he's yet to break through in Cup. But he also thinks this could be his time.

"I feel that I have the appropriate amount of experience to be successful [at NHMS]," says Keselowksi, who grew up on the short tracks of the Midwest. "I feel like we've showcased that over the last two weekends here where we finished fifth and second -- and we won the Nationwide race the last time here. So, I feel like we have a pretty good track record and as good a shot as anyone else."

To be sure, the eyes of the NASCAR world will be watching -- and none more intently than his former teammates at Hendrick. Who knew?