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Menzer: How high can Keselowski fly?

May 07, 2012, Joe Menzer,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With his latest win, Brad Keselowski could be poised to make a run at history

The superlatives kept coming, and so did the smiles.

In the wake of his impressive victory in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, Brad Keselowski basked in the glow of the spotlight and grinned every time someone told him how great he was.

"...To win another Cup championship for (Rick) Hendrick or Richard Childress is not the same as winning the first for Roger Penske. That's a whole different accomplishment. ... I want to be the guy that proves it in the record books."


And who could blame him?

It was Keselowski's second victory of the Sprint Cup season and the second Cup triumph at the 2.66-mile track in his young career. It also gave Dodge its first win at Talladega since Dave Marcis graced Victory Lane in his vintage wing-tip shoes way back in 1976.

Finally, Keselowski's win was the first for owner Roger Penske at the storied track. And Penske has been sending drivers into the 'Dega arena for three decades.

It all led to some obvious questions. Just how good, really, is this 28-year-old who is competing in just his third full Cup season? And is it possible Keselowski might just be on the cusp of giving Penske another coveted racing first -- as in Penske's first Cup championship?

Penske seems to think that just might be the case. He called Keselowski "a world-class driver" who has "become a student of the game." He talked about how amazing it was that Keselowski was able to hold off a charging Kyle Busch on the final lap of the green-white-checkered finish.

"I would say he ran the perfect race," Penske crooned at one point.

High praise

Conventional wisdom deemed that Keselowski was destined to finish second to Kyle Busch on Sunday. That's usually the case when two cars are hooked up on the final lap at Talladega, where it arguably is more advantageous to be the second car in line instead of the leader.

Busch knew that better than perhaps anyone. He had been the leader on the last lap a day earlier in the Nationwide Series race at the track, only to be passed by Joey Logano in a slingshot move as they motored to the checkered flag.

There was some question as to whether Keselowski truly put a great move on Busch to prevent that from happening to him, or whether Busch's No. 18 Toyota simply lacked the power in the end to execute the final push. Probably it was some combination of the two.

Whatever the case, Busch offered high praise for Keselowski in the aftermath. Asked if Keselowski is shaping up as a true title contender, Busch pointed out that Keselowski made the Chase last year and now, with two wins already, is a virtual lock for a return trip.

And once in the Chase, who knows what can happen? Busch also dismissed the thought that Keselowski is some kind of restrictor-plate racing expert -- because he said to do so might in some way diminish the deep respect he has for Keselowski's overall abilities.

"He's no dummy, that's for sure," Busch said. "He's got good plate-racing skills, but I think he's got good short-track and mile-and-a-half skills, too.

"Brad should be a title contender each and every year. Last year, he did a great job through the summer stretch and was one of the hottest guys going in the Chase, qualifying to get in on wins (as a wild card). And then this year, with the two wins he has already, he'd be the top seed for the Chase (if it started now)."

Leader of the pack

Brad Keselowski was masterful in the late laps at Talladega for his second win of the season.

Top dog

Yet, Penske insisted that Keselowski's greatest talent might not be even be on display behind the wheel of the No. 2 Dodge. After a tumultuous end to driver Kurt Busch's tenure with Penske Racing, Penske yearned for a different kind of driver to be the top dog in the NASCAR arm of his operation.

Penske made it very clear that he now believes he has found it in Keselowski.

"I think he's matured a lot," Penske said. "He's been a tremendous asset to the team. ... You can see when he comes in the shop, where he's spending a lot of time. I wouldn't trade him for anybody right now.

"He came to me before he went to work for us and he said, 'I'd like to come to Penske Racing and help build a winning Cup team.' He's certainly demonstrated that he can do that with his driving ability, but his chemistry with (crew chief) Paul Wolfe and that whole team has made a difference."

In other words, Keselowski's greatest gift to Penske Racing is the realization that he's part of something much bigger. He made history Sunday, but he's far from done. And he's going about reaching the ultimate goal in the right fashion.

"This is not about the driver, or the car, or the sponsor," Penske said. "It's about the whole team. He's the real package. What we're trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.

"Obviously, one of the goals in my life is to sit up on that stage in New York or Las Vegas (at the season-ending champions banquet). And I think he's the guy who can make it happen -- this year, hopefully."

Keselowski joked that Sunday's victory meant only that he's not going to get fired this week, or anytime soon. But he seemed surprised at all the fuss being made over him.

Penske Racing history

Championships have been hard to come by for the legendary owner
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"It's my job to be good. That's what I get paid for," he said. "I don't get paid to suck at this. If I did, I'm not driving for the right guy. (Penske) has won all these races over here. We're trying real hard to get that first Cup championship. We're doing the right things."

Yes, they are. And, after Sunday's performance, they have earned the right to dream big and to reach for the top immediately. Penske has waited a long, long time and placed his title hopes in a bevy of drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Bobby

Allison, Ryan Newman and the aforementioned talented, but oftentimes troublesome, Busch.

Keselowski is still young and obviously has a long way to go to be mentioned the same breath as Hall-of-Famer Allison and soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Wallace. But with five wins in his last 46 races and a slew of other strong runs, plus his apparent team-building expertise, Keselowski is beginning to flash the kind of potential where he might just prove to be the best of the bunch in the long run.

And he's motivated to leave his mark -- at Penske Racing and on the sport as whole.

"It's a large part of the reason why I came here to drive for him," Keselowski said of chasing Penske's first Cup title, which would match the 2010 Nationwide Series title he gave the owner -- the first and so far only NASCAR title Penske has ever captured. "I want to be that first guy. I feel like he's dedicated to making that happen.

"I look at some of the other elite car owners in the sport -- and I don't want this to be offensive, but to win another Cup championship for (Rick) Hendrick or Richard Childress is not the same as winning the first for Roger Penske. That's a whole different accomplishment. ... I want to be the guy that proves it in the record books."

If he continues to take Penske Racing to places it's never been in NASCAR, that could indeed become his impressive legacy.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.