NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Keselowski Shows Maturity at Watkins Glen… And The Chase Danger He Poses

_Note: Amy is filling in for Tom Bowles, who is out of town this week. Tom will be back next week. In the meantime, enjoy Amy’s commentary, Holding A Pretty Wheel, which runs regularly on Fridays. Also, be sure to check out her regular Monday column, The Big Six, and then come back for Tom’s Wednesday column, Did You Notice?._

It begins as nothing more than a low pressure system over the ocean. Oh, it’s there, all right, but the threat is remote. The clouds gather and darken; the wind begins to pick up. Still, it’s distant, remote. Even as it gains speed and power, most continue to deny its danger. And so it grows, largely ignored due to its remote location. Experts begin to recognize its potential, give it a name and try to predict its path, hoping to be able to accurately predict where it will strike, so that anyone in its path has time to prepare a defense. And all the while it grows, slowly, angrily. It’s at its most unpredictable stage now; it could turn away harmlessly, or it could unleash the full fury of the world on anyone and anything in its path, leaving us to watch helplessly as it makes its mark–a mark that will last for years or even decades. It’s hard to react now; the coming storm has yet to make its intentions known. That alone makes it dangerous.

Watch out, NASCAR. Hurricane Brad is gathering on the horizon.

Like a tropical storm, Brad Keselowski is dangerous in his unpredictability. Throughout the last two years, Keselowski has been biding his time, learning, improving. He’s grown up… and he’s grown dangerous. Keselowski–who has said that if people think he’s too aggressive, then he’s probably doing something right–is showing his hand, and it’s a strong one.

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Brad Keselowski has emerged as a Cup star, and more importantly a real threat to win the Chase in 2012.

There was a time when Keselowski might have wrecked Marcos Ambrose on the last lap at Watkins Glen, a time when the Michigan native was more checkers or wreckers than thinking about respect and what is gained and lost by making a move that could haunt you later. His reputation for being aggressive is well-earned; but he has also earned a reputation for being fair. He races others the way they race him, and that goes a long way toward winning races and, ultimately, championships.

They’re not there yet. A look at the numbers says that when the points are reset for the Chase in three weeks, Keselowski–who is currently fifth in the standings–will go at or near the top of the chart. Right now, he is tied with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart for the most wins in the Sprint Cup Series with three. If none of the three win in the next four races, they will share the points lead after Richmond. Any of the three could certainly claim the top spot for himself in those four weeks–and there’s not even a clear favorite to do it. Of the three, only Stewart has wins at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond. Johnson has wins at all but Michigan. All three have won at Bristol; Keselowski has won there twice while Stewart and Johnson have one each. Keselowski hasn’t won at the other three in the Cup Series, but has four victories among Michigan, Bristol, and Richmond in the Nationwide Series.

The one card missing from Kesleowski’s hand has been consistency. He’s improved in that area in 2012 (his average finish is up three spots over 2011), but he isn’t quite where he needs to be to be a title favorite. But, he’s close–And getting closer. His numbers in this department actually edge Stewart after Watkins Glen, with his 11.7 average to Stewart’s 12.0. But he’s still almost two full positions behind Johnson’s ultra-consistent 10.0 average, and that’s taking into account Keselowski’s one DNF to Johnson’s three. The reason why: Johnson’s worst finish outside those DNF’s is 14th. Keselowski has eight top 5’s to Johnson’s 11, but the truth lies between the top 5’s and the DNF’s. Keselowski has six finishes of 15th or worse compared to Johnson’s two.

But even in those numbers, Keselowski is gaining strength: he’s finished 15th or worse just twice since Kansas in April, with a 15th at Darlington and an 18th place at the first Pocono event. He’s moving ever closer to the sport’s elite in the consistency department. And right now, like the hurricane that is gaining power daily but hasn’t tipped its hand on the path it will take, Keselowski is dangerous.

Stewart proved a year ago what a stellar Chase run can do for you in the face of simple consistency; Johnson has written the manual for winning titles in the Chase era. And Keselowski understands the history of the sport better than many drivers; he knows that if he can pick up his game just a notch, he could be every bit the title threat that Johnson and Stewart are.

The trouble is, it’s hard to peg Keselowski a title favorite yet because he doesn’t have history behind him–and he hasn’t played the Chase game as long or as well as the other favorites, like Johnson, Stewart, or Matt Kenseth. But you can bet he’s watched how they play, studied their moves… and then thought about how to beat them. And unlike some of the competition, Keselowski doesn’t have the pressure of a past title in his mind. He doesn’t have baggage; he only has this year.

Keselowski has grown up in his three Cup seasons. He’s more mindful of earning respect–and respect can make or break a champion. If you have it, others will race you using it. If you don’t… well, they certainly aren’t going to make a title run any easier on you, especially if you’re racing their friends and teammates. He gets that, and he’s changed subtly; he’s never going to be less aggressive, but he has learned that you can be aggressive and still race with respect. In fact, you might even be able to race harder because there are no hard feelings, no deep-seated mistrust.

That’s not saying that Keselowski won’t use his bumper to move the competition. He will… but in return, he understands that you live and die by the bumper and if he moves you, you might return the favor. That makes the racing thrilling to watch because drivers that truly understand the give-and-take of racing won’t back off an inch, but won’t go bowling for racecars, either. That level of understanding is part of the reason why Johnson, Stewart, and Kenseth are champions and some others are not. What goes around comes around–and if it comes around at the wrong moment, you’re done. Some drivers never learn that lesson.

But Keselowski is as as much as student of racing as a participant… he gets the intricacies of the sport like few others. He and his team, led by Paul Wolfe, are learning, gathering strength, building power. And like a hurricane, they’re poised to strike. This year, it looks likely to be a glancing blow after a 2011 of just missing landfall. If that happens, it might be time to batten down the hatches for a stormy 2013 at the hands of Hurricane Brad.

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