Like many others, as I watched Brad Keselowski celebrate following his win in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, I was struck by the significance of his three-pronged accomplishment—winning his fifth race of the season, his second in the first three races of the Chase, and his regaining the points lead, all in one fell swoop.
The more I watched him celebrate and smile and go crazy in victory lane, a question popped into my mind, one that very well could portend how the remaining seven races of the Chase play out.
That question is simple: Is Keselowski ready to become Sprint Cup champion in 2012?
Sure, he has some stiff competition from the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne, but the question remains, is Keselowski truly championship material?
At 28, and in just his third full season on the Sprint Cup circuit, can the Michigan native stay focused and stave off his challengers to, say, keep Johnson from his sixth career Cup championship or prevent someone like Hamlin or Clint Bowyer from winning their first Cup titles?
There's no question that B.K., as he's increasingly referred to, has outstanding talent behind the wheel. Even more, the Polish Rocket has great instinct and timing. Look at how he snuck in front of and ultimately rattled Johnson late in the race at Chicago, pulling away to a dominating win in the Chase opener.
And then on Sunday at Dover, Keselowski was once again Johnny—okay, make that Brad—on the spot, not having the best car but nonetheless still having enough car to grab the lead at the right time and hold on for yet another come-from-behind win.
In so doing, Keselowski continues to make a name for himself—and a case to keep his name in the forefront of potential Chase champions—and wants to make sure people don't forget about him when they start talking about how the Chase potentially may come down to Hamlin vs. Johnson.
But really, is the Polish Rocket ready to become the No. 1 driver in Sprint Cup racing? Can he handle the pressure, the sometimes over-exposure and attention, the notoriety and everything else that comes with becoming and reigning for the following year as champion?
Even with wins in two of the first three Chase races, I'm sure there are some out there that think Keselowski may buckle to the pressure, folding in much the same fashion as Hamlin did in the last two races of 2010.
And then I'm sure there are others, however, who feel Keselowski not only is the real deal, he has the potential to make a great champion.
A good friend of mine in the sport told me recently that had it been Keselowski instead of Carl Edwards battling Tony Stewart in last year's Chase, that Tony very well may not have earned his third career Cup title. The message was simple: Keselowski isn't as gentlemanly and doesn't try to be as politically correct and always smiling as Edwards.
Rather, he is all-racer, someone who races by the seat of his pants and puts nothing ahead of him other than checkered flags, while someone like Edwards has to always try to look good in the eyes of sponsors or live up to the All-American boy persona that has made him a fan favorite.
But there is at least one thing that Keselowski shares with Edwards: they both had to fight for everything they've ever earned.
Like Edwards, Keselowski is as blue collar as the blue Miller Lite car he drives. He's literally worked his way up from his bootstraps, starting a racing career in suburban Detroit that has quickly taken him to within reach of NASCAR's pinnacle.
And like Edwards, Kes (another nickname he's acquired) wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn't have things given to him. He worked his butt off, hustling to find rides and sponsorships.
And through it all, at every level of racing that he participated in, he asked for just one thing in return: a chance, a shot, an opportunity.
In NASCAR, it's almost inevitable to have fans, media—even other drivers—compare one driver with others. For a long while, I've wondered who Keselowski resembled and reminded me of the most, and I honestly could not come up with one single, individual driver.
Rather, Keselowski to me was a hybrid. If you were to build a mold that fit him, you'd take a little bit from the savvy of Jeff Gordon, the hard-charging of the late Dale Earnhardt, the "aw, shucks" public persona of Edwards and the fieriness of Kevin Harvick.
But when it comes to winning a championship, it finally hit me a couple weeks back, right after Keselowski's win at Chicago. Keselowski is probably as close to Tony Stewart as he is to any other driver when it comes to possessing many of the same attributes, including similar drive, determination, motivation, bullheadedness at times, occasional cockiness, the joy he gets in snookering other drivers and so many other elements.
Stewart came into the Cup series in a completely different way and at a different time in the sport's annals than Keselowski. Prior to coming full-time to NASCAR in 1999, Stewart had already won an IndyCar championship, almost won the Indy 500 and had been a legendary driver on the sprint car and midget circuits.
But as Keselowski cut his racing teeth first in the Trucks series, then Nationwide and eventually into Cup racing, he showed more and more why he was so much like Stewart. He didn't give an inch, he didn't take any bull, had no problem putting up his fists if needed, and made it very clear to his opponents that he was no one to be messed with or to be pushed around.
Just like Stewart.
Oh yes, and when did Stewart win his first of three Cup championships? In his fourth full season.
If you include the half-season when he came up to the Cup series midway through the 2009 campaign, Keselowski is technically in his fourth season.
Coincidence? Could we ultimately see seven races from now that, as Stewart did in 2002, Keselowski will do in 2012?
Sure, there's still plenty of racing left to go—including this coming Sunday's wild-card race at Talladega, where all bets are off.
If I was to seriously put down a bet on the remainder of the Chase, I'd have to think long and hard before betting against Keselowski.
On one hand, I think he still may be a season or two away from being able to handle all the pressure and everything else that comes with not only holding on to win the championship, but also to represent the sport as its champion.
But then when I look at how he won at Chicago and how he won Sunday at Dover, the hesitation within me quickly dissipates and I convince myself more and more that B.K. can indeed become this year's champion if he continues to have some breaks go his way.
Even if he ultimately falls short and doesn't win the championship this season, I can promise you one thing for sure: whoever does indeed win that coveted crown is going to have to get through and past Keselowski first.
And that could ultimately prove to be as hard—if not harder—as winning the championship itself.
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