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Keselowski looking like contender after strong victory at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Five things we learned from the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

1. Brad Keselowski has joined the sport's upper echelon. The move came with one lap to go. Keselowski had taken the lead from Matt Kenseth during the green-white-checkered-finish, with a push from Kyle Busch. The duo pulled away from the field, and like this weekend's ARCA and Nationwide events, the Sprint Cup race was setting itself up for the second-place car to steal the win on the front stretch.

Only Keselowski didn't let it happen.

As they headed into Turn 3, Keselowski went high and pulled down away from Busch, breaking up the tandem. Busch couldn't make up the ground as Keselowski pulled across the finish line 0.304 seconds ahead of the No. 18. It was his second win at Talladega and the sixth of his career.

"I had this whole plan if I ever got into that situation where I was leading," he said. "I thought about it and thought about it and dreamed about it, what to do. Sure enough going into [Turn] 3 it was just me and Kyle.

"I knew the move I wanted to pull. ... Now everybody has seen it and they know it, but I'm glad I was able to get away with it."

Combined with his victory at Bristol, Keselowski joins Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart as two-race winners. It makes him a virtual lock to earn at least a wild-card Chase berth, and continues the upward trajectory his breakthrough season of 2011 promised.

In the last 26 races dating back to last July at Indianapolis, the 28-year-old Keselowski has produced four victories and a total of 15 top-10 finishes. Those wins are more than likes of Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson -- all perennial title contenders -- have had over that stretch.

He was a great story in rallying to make this Chase in '11, but faded over the last month. But this time around, Keselowski is looking more and more like a legit threat for his first title.

"We've shown that we're better here at this point in the year than we were last year at this point in the year, and we were better last year at this point in the year when we were the year before," Keselowski said. "I'm very thankful for where we're at. I'm hungry to win that championship."

2. Roush Fenway Racing again flexed its muscle on a restrictor-plate track. Yes, Kenseth, and drafting partner Greg Biffle were overtaken by Keselowski and Busch when it mattered most -- "I was just too stupid I guess at the end to keep a win," Kenseth quipped -- but it was still another impressive run by Jack Roush's crew on the series' biggest tracks.

Kenseth led a race-high 73 laps in finishing third, while Biffle, who paced the field for 15 laps, was fifth. This comes on the heels of the pair finishing first (Kenseth) and third (Biffle) in the Daytona 500, another restrictor-plate track.

"I think we had the winning car, really we just didn't have the winning driver," Kenseth said. "On the last restart, Greg and I got hooked up together like Daytona. Of all the cars I raced around today, Greg was really pushing me fast."

While they didn't reach Victory Lane, the Fords do leave Talladega having made a statement of their own. Kenseth climbed up to second in the standings, just seven points behind the leader Biffle.

3. Hendrick Motorsports' drought continues. They had the pole-sitter in Jeff Gordon and the defending race winner in Johnson; Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seemed on the verge of reaching Victory Lane for weeks and Kasey Kahne is on a run of top-10s.

But none of them could bring Rick Hendrick his 200th win, a milestone that has eluded the team since it last won in October at Kansas. The organization has now gone 16 races without a victory, its longest stretch since a string of 17 straight that ran the end of the '01 season into '02.

GALLERY: 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup winners

There were positives as Kahne led 11 laps and Junior 10 as they finished fourth and ninth, respectively. But Gordon was part of the first multicar crash on Lap 141 and came in 33rd and Johnson's day was cut short at 61 laps due to oil pressure issues, as he was 35th.

"This is just one of the most bizarre years [our team] has ever gone through," said Gordon, who stumbling to 23rd in the standings. "It's just comical at this point. ... That's just the way our season has gone."

4. Martin Truex Jr. is losing his momentum. Two weeks ago, Truex was sitting second in the points standings, the highest he's been in his Cup career. It was a surprising turn that had us wondering if the driver of the No. 56 could keep it up.

But Truex leaves Alabama sitting sixth in the points as he followed up last weekend's 26th-place finish at Richmond -- which ended a string of five consecutive top-10 finishes -- with a 33rd as he was hit by Gordon.

"We were kind of spinning down the track and got hit by, I think it was the 24 [Gordon] and cleaned the front off the car," Truex said. "Not his fault obviously. I thought we were going to be OK until that happened. It's just a same. We had a fast car and really didn't get a chance to show it."

Next week's trip to Darlington may be exactly what Truex needs to break out of his rut. His average finish (12.3) is his second best of any track and he's finished in the top 10 there in two of the last three years.

5. Kurt Busch's car was the talk of the weekend. Without a sponsor for his No. 51 Phoenix Racing ride, Busch opted to make like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. Literally.

Busch's Chevrolet was made up to look like Bobby's car when he made his comeback in the movie's climax, with "ME" and a picture of a cougar plastered on Busch's hood, and the Bobby quote "I wanna go fast" across the back. He also rode with a stuffed cougar in the car with him.

But the ode to Bobby didn't end there. Members of the No. 51 team filled the roles of the Nights characters on their in-car radio discussions, with Busch being called "Ricky" and the driver referring to crew chief Nick Harrison as Michael Clarke Duncan's "Lucius Washington." Said Busch/Bobby after a mid-race pass: "If you ain't first, you're last."

As SB Nation's Jeff Gluck details, the tribute wasn't without its hurdles, including getting the approval of Sony Pictures, the handler of the cougar from the movie and Will Ferrell's people to make it happen.

Busch's day in the "ME" car didn't end quite like Bobby's. He led four laps and was running in the top five before he was spun out by Keselowski with seven laps to go. Busch went sliding across the apron and hit the barrier, and then proceeded to drive the wrong way down pit road. He wound up in 20th.

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