Win or lose this Sprint Cup championship, you've got to hand it to Brad Keselowski. He is going at it absolutely the right way.
Keselowski, who finished second to race winner and Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson in Sunday's AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, obviously has no intention of going down without a fight. But while that in itself is impressive, it's not the only reason Keselowski is turning heads and gaining respect during what has evolved into an epic two-man battle for the title between him and Johnson that is reminiscent of last year's titanic struggle between Carl Edwards and eventual champ Tony Stewart.
The No. 2 Dodge team of Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe again and again has proven to be the one group most willing to take chances this season. And once a call is made, Keselowski as a driver is doggedly determined to make the best of it and not look back. There is no regret in this guy, no wondering how things might have been if he had done something differently -- unless it's reviewed in a tactical way that he might constructively apply to the future.
See, that's it with Keselowski. He's always learning. While he might come across as brash and cocky -- traits most great NASCAR drivers have always had, it's worth noting -- he's not arrogant to the point where he mistakenly thinks he knows it all. He's willing to experiment and try new things, even during the course of a race -- as he did when he overruled Wolfe and called for two tires during a late pit stop in Sunday's event.
Was it the right call? Did it cost him the race?
Even Keselowski wasn't sure afterward. But he was cocksure that making the call -- when everyone else who came to pit road went with the more conservative call of four tires -- was worth the gamble at the time. It got him out front, and he very nearly defied all odds to stay there.
It was the kind of gutsy call that it's going to take to win a championship, or maybe a handful of them. The fact is that now Keselowski isn't in great position to win this one. He trails Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, by seven points with only two races remaining.
Johnson knows what he has to do, and that makes him difficult to defeat. All Johnson has to do is keep his No. 48 Chevrolet out of major trouble and close to Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge over the next two races, and a sixth championship is his for the taking. When Five Time is in this type of position this late in the game, he's going to be tough to beat.
But that brings to bear the other thing about Keselowski that you have to like. He's never going to give up, and he's going to have fun while he's chasing Johnson and his own slice of racing history.
"I'm enjoying this," Keselowski told reporters after beating and banging with Johnson in the ultimately futile attempt to hold onto the lead with older right-side tires in the closing laps at Texas. "It's my dream to run for a Sprint Cup championship. It's any driver at this level's dream to run for a championship. It's a lot of fun to do."
Keselowski even had the class to visit Victory Lane and congratulate Johnson on a job well done following their duel to the finish Sunday. He can respect a good fight, and as a result is gaining respect as a competitor in a garage where he once was despised by many of his fellow drivers.
"Certainly I would have liked to have won [Sunday], but I feel like we're fighting the good fight and doing some great things as a team that I'm really, really proud of," Keselowski said. "Obviously, it's not going to come easy. But anything worth doing in life shouldn't come easy, and I appreciate the efforts of the people that I'm around to make it happen. I appreciate the fact that it's difficult, because it brings out the best in everybody. As a group, I feel like we've brought our best, and I'm really proud of everybody for that."
Much has been made of the fact that Keselowski is making his run at Johnson in a Dodge car that will be ditched at season's end as Penske Racing makes the transition to a new manufacturer in Ford. Then again, you almost can't make too much of it.
Yet Keselowski has handled the seemingly never-ending questions about making his title run for a lame-duck manufacturer with deft and class, skirting the edge of offending anyone and somehow leaving both his current manufacturer and the one in waiting totally satisfied under highly unusual circumstances. It no doubt has not been easy to do.
At the beginning and end of each day, however, it is not Keselowski's actions off the track that define him. It's what he does as a hard-core racer on it -- and even in losing to Johnson on Sunday at Texas, he perhaps has never been better.
He made Johnson earn the victory, and as Keselowski said afterward he's going to do everything in his power over these next two weekends at Phoenix and Homestead to keep the 48 team "honest." Keselowski might slip up at Phoenix, but don't count on it. Johnson certainly isn't.
Keselowski vowed to keep the pressure on. He also pointed out that perhaps he's due for some breaks that seem to have gone more toward Johnson's way lately.
"I'm confident that we can execute at a high level," Keselowski said. "The way it's worked over the last three weeks we haven't caught good breaks or bad breaks, and he's caught several really good ones -- I'm confident that that will come back around. And when it does, we'll change these seconds and fifths or whatever they are over the last few weeks into wins. I feel like that's bound to happen over the next two weeks, and we have the team to pull it off. I also feel like the way the points are right now, we still control our own destiny -- which is if we win the race, we get the points lead. So that's about all you can ask for."
It's the right call, and it leaves everyone following this championship duel with the same distinct feeling. No matter what happens over these next two weekends, this won't be the last time Brad Keselowski is in a similar position to make one that might determine a title.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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