Keselowski must be better than the best to win Sprint Cup

11/03/2012 12:29 AM

11/03/2012 11:54 AM

Don't let the body language fool you. Brad Keselowski grins big, rocks back and forth in his seat and laughs easily. But he knows exactly how close he is to being a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

Two points away from the lead.

Three races to go.

Close.

Close to being the next big thing. Close to giving legendary motorsports owner Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup championship. Close to outdueling the sport's biggest driver, Jimmie Johnson.

Close to being known for more than tweeting a picture of the fire at Daytona.

Close.

"Here we are in the stretch run. Last three races. Been a great run," he said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he qualified eighth for Sunday's AAA Texas 500, the third-to-last stop in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. "Certainly would like to have a big lead, but that's not realistic when you're racing against the best and competing against the best -- in any sport.

"But happy with my position. Happy with my car. Feeling good about everything."

He pauses and smiles, but he continues to sit straight up as he talks to reporters in the media center in the infield of the 1.5-mile speedway. They're looking for any hint of pressure in the 28-year-old from Rochester Hills, Mich.

He's asked a question about what it would mean to produce a championship for Penske, a titan in the sport with multiple wins in the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series but with no Sprint Cup championships.

Keselowski carefully considers the question. It's clear it would mean a lot.

"Man, I have thought about it," he said. "A lot. It's an answer that's really not very easy for me to give in this forum. ...Roger Penske, everything that he's done, to not have a championship, I don't know how you answer that question in this setting. But I can tell you that I'm very hungry for it. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about what it's going to take and how big it would be to my life to do it. But it's just not something that you can answer in a setting like this.

"It's basically the culmination of a life's worth of work, not just one, but probably three or four more than that when you count in my crew chiefs, mechanics, family, car owners and so forth."

If he is going to do it, Keselowski is going to have to catch and pass the most successful driver of NASCAR's nine-year Chase era, the playoff-style format that gives the top 12 drivers a chance to compete for the title over the last 10 races.

Johnson has won five Chase championships and won a record 21 Chase races.

Last week at Martinsville, Va., Johnson's victory and Keselowski's sixth-place finish meant they swapped places in the standings. Johnson went from trailing Keselowski by seven points to leading him by two.

To retake the lead, Keselowski would have to win or finish three places higher than Johnson on Sunday, assuming they matched bonus points for leading a lap.

"Jimmie and I are the only ones that control our own destiny, and that's a position of strength, for sure," Keselowski said.

This is only the fourth full-time season in Sprint Cup for Keselowski, who has won a championship -- the title in the 2010 Nationwide Series, the step below Sprint Cup.

Even driving for a manufacturer, Dodge, that is leaving the sport, he is a rising star. Penske will put its drivers in Fords next year. If he can't catch Johnson this year, Keselowski figures to have more chances.

"He is a great asset for the sport for years to come," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "He's going to have a lot more opportunities aside from this one. He's going to have a lot of opportunities to win championships. He's got to be excited about that."

He is. He smiles.

But ...

"I don't want to waste them," he said. "I only see us getting stronger. It doesn't mean I'd be happy if I didn't win it this year. But I would feel like there's potential to get it done for years to come. It's part of why I'm in such a happy state of mind."

Makes sense. He's close.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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