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Gritty victory at Pocono provides vindication for Brad Keselowski

The puzzle that is Brad Keselowski is becoming clearer, the pieces beginning to fit and provide a detailed picture of the person and the driver. Where once was assumption and suspicion is now reality and certainty with the 27-year-old.

Bombastic headlines have dominated his short NASCAR career. Denny Hamlin once called Keselowski "a complete moron,'' Carl Edwards wrecked him at Atlanta and Kyle Busch has mocked him at the track and in a commercial. Such moments offer only a one-dimensional view of a driver who deserves a deeper look.

Keselowski confided earlier this year that he thought many of his fellow drivers were still confused about him.

"Probably because of the performance more than anything else,'' he said back in March. "They race against me on Saturday [in the Nationwide Series] and I'm a car that passes them, and on Sunday [in Cup] I'm a car that is the opposite. When we get the performance to where the Cup car is consistent with what we ran last year on the Nationwide side ... then I think they'll have a better read on me.''

In May, teammate Kurt Busch noted how Keselowski hadn't beaten him much. Kurt Busch also stated at Darlington how he felt he hadn't had an equivalent at Penske Racing since Ryan Newman in 2007.

Keselowski admitted those words motivated him. Combined with improvements at Penske Racing, Keselowski has finished higher than Kurt Busch in six of the 12 races since his teammate's comments. That Keselowski is running better -- his 13.4 average finish since Darlington is better than those of Tony Stewart (13.9), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (16.0) and Clint Bowyer (18.1) -- strengthens Penske and benefits Kurt Busch. Three times in the last six races both Penske drivers finished in the top 10.

Keselowski's win Sunday at Pocono was his second of the season and moved him to 18th in points, making him eligible for a wild-card spot in the Chase. After a dreadful start -- Keselowski had no top-10 finishes in the first nine races -- he has six top-10s, including two wins, in his last 12 Cup races.

The Pocono victory also was important for another reason. Keselowski's previous two Cup wins had been in a restrictor-plate race and off a fuel-mileage gamble, so it was easy for detractors to dismiss his accomplishments. Sunday's win provided vindication.

"I've always wanted to win a Cup race and earn it; not fuel mileage, not Talladega; a real win,'' Keselowski said. " And [it] feels like that.''

Pit strategy helped him this time -- crew chief Paul Wolfe's decision to pit before a rain delay gave Keselowski the track position he needed -- but Keselowski had to take advantage of the situation in the last 70 laps. He didn't disappoint.

Such results will begin to overcome the perception he earned early in his career when he was as better known for controversy.

"Nobody has handed me anything in my career,'' Keselowski said late in 2009 after an incident with Hamlin that led to Hamlin's rebuke and a NASCAR meeting with Keselowski about his driving. "I've dug and clawed for everything I've got and the only way to do that is by being aggressive.''

Keselowski has shown he can be more than aggressive. His Nationwide title from last season proves that. He also showed his grit Sunday, winning with a broken left ankle. That's what drivers are supposed to do. This isn't a debate about if drivers are athletes; it's more about the sport's machismo. Drivers drive hurt. That's how it has been and always will be.

Hamlin raced with a surgically repaired knee last year and won. Terry Labonte won the 1996 title driving the final two races with a broken hand. Dale Earnhardt won a pole that same year at Watkins Glen with a broken sternum. Ricky Rudd drove with his eyes taped open after a wild crash in the 1984 Busch Clash at Daytona. Richard Petty raced with a broken neck in 1980. And on and on the history of drivers racing hurt goes.

While Keselowski was in pain, there was no sense complaining. He vowed not to get out of the car, although afterward, he admitted this was not an easy Sunday drive.

"I think probably the biggest thing for me was, since I've been laying in a bed laying around for two or three days, the energy that you lose from that,'' Keselowski said about having to adjust to the injury. "I just didn't have any energy in the car.''

After winning the race, Keselowski shouted on his radio a labored "Yes guys, yes, yes!'' He then added: "I've nothing left in the tank. I gave it all, man.''

Although focused on racing, Keselowski is aware of his surroundings. After his win at Pocono, he downplayed his performance, offering his thoughts to the soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

''I might not be feeling great, but those are the guys that are really making sacrifices,'' said Keselowski, who noted he has a cousin who is a Navy SEAL. " We're just driving race cars for a living. We're not curing cancer or saving the world like those guys are.''

Progressive on Twitter (Keselowski was selected to SI's Twitter 100), he also can be a deep thinker.

During a brewery tour earlier this year for sponsor Miller Lite, Keselowski was led throughout the facility. At one point, he and the group walked down a long, windowless hallway with pictures of employees sorted by department and what shift they worked. Keselowski knew none of the employees. Yet, as he walked through the hallway, it was as if his head was on a swivel, turning from side to side to see each picture and catch a glimpse of the people in those pictures.

"You look at life and life is about communities,'' Keselowski said. "We're all stronger as a community than we are as a single person or we'd still be living in caves. To me, when I look at people, I think of community in the sense that we all need each other to get by. Some people have figured that out, some haven't.

"I always wonder what it takes to create a community that can do the things that we do. That's why it interests me and makes me think about, even in racing it takes a team of people to get things done. So, I always think about what makes a great team. So when, you're in other aspects of your life, for me at least, where you're not with your comfort zone of team and mechanics, you look at how they are successful. I always try to look and absorb those things and see how I can apply them to my own process of existence.''

Once one learns more about Keselowski and puts together the puzzle pieces, the picture that develops isn't exactly what many thought.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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