The 2013 season was a frustrating one for Brad Keselowski. After winning five races en route to the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship, the 30-year-old suffered through an abysmal year in which he won just one race and finished outside of the Chase at 14th in the points standings.
Following just three races in 2014, it's clear that Keselowski has the pedigree to repeat his success from 2012 and put last year in the rearview mirror.
With a win in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car has already assured itself a place in the Chase. Keselowski spoke about that on the Fox broadcast of the race, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
Brad Keselowski on FOX: "I don't have to hear that crap all year anymore of not being in the Chase."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 9, 2014
Ironically enough, Keselowski actually would have been in the NASCAR playoffs last year with his 14th finish. But under the new format, the Team Penske driver has essentially assured himself a spot with just the one win.
While the first-place finish in Vegas is clearly the highlight of his young season, Keselowski has been competitive in every race thus far. His turnaround has included finishing third in both of the season's two opening races.
But a top-five finish is not the same as a win.
Not only did the win virtually solidify a spot for Keselowski in the Chase, it also relieved stress for himself and his team, per Gluck:
"It's just such a reliever for everyone on the team — myself included — to get that win early and be able to enjoy the opportunities we have instead of being stressed out about them," Keselowski said.
Though his win was due, in large part, to Earnhardt running out of fuel on the final turn of the race, his success the rest of the season will be his own doing.
Keselowski spoke about passing Junior, who was his owner when he started with JR Motorsports, for his first victory of the season, per Marty Smith of ESPN:
Asked @Keselowski if it felt any more special to race for victory against a guy that gave him a chance: "Those are the moments I live for."— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) March 9, 2014
Along with Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, Keselowski has proven that he's worthy of still being mentioned in the top tier of drivers in the Sprint Cup. With all of the headlines centered around Earnhardt in the early going, both Penske drivers have quietly dominated.
Keselowski sits in second, while Logano is fourth after the first three races. The only other team with more drivers in the top five is Hendrick Motorsports, which has Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all in first, third and fifth, respectively.
After the pivotal win for Keselowski, Logano was one of the first to congratulate him, adding that the team will be back in Victory Lane this season:
Congrats @keselowski on that win. What a last run you had. Now it's your turn to come visit me in victory lane.— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) March 10, 2014
One miserable season might have led to a long offseason for most drivers, but Keselowski used it as motivation to come back stronger.
In fact, the decision to avoid pit lane early on in the the race when everyone else did was Keselowski's own doing. That move eventually paid off in a race where only four cautions came out due to debris. No wrecks occurred.
Gluck notes the work ethic of Keselowski, as he's more than rebounded from a disappointing 2013 season:
Keselowski, a chronic overthinker whose mind is never stagnant, peppered crew chief Paul Wolfe with ideas during the offseason to make sure the team would be able to bounce back. The thinking often extends to the races, like it did Sunday when Keselowski made a crucial strategy call.
[...] "You think about the times when you do get frustrated, but I think this is probably a better situation than a guy who doesn't show up at the shop and doesn't understand what's going on," Wolfe said. "Obviously, this win here helps give everybody a little bit of confidence to know that we can get back on top where we were in 2012."
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That relationship with his crew chief has paid off, as he sits behind only Earnhardt in the overall standings, which could result in him taking home his second points championship in three years.
Not only has he been one of the fastest cars on the track in the first three races, Keselowski has long been a consistent force. After sweeping both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Vegas, his fifth full season on the Sprint Cup circuit could be even more successful than his third.
And with the stress off him and his team, Keselowski can now look to improve over the final 33 races in the season. With a long season ahead of him, he and Team Penske have a great chance of racing for a points championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.