MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The hope, for those who don't want to see Jimmie Johnson win a sixth championship, rests primarily with a 28-year-old, who was once known more for his social media skills than for the self-assured driving style that has brought him so close to a crown.
Often examined through a one-dimensional viewfinder, it was easy for many to miss the larger scope of Brad Keselowski. Now, it's hard to see him as anything but a title contender. Although he lost the points lead to Jimmie Johnson on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Keselowski remains only two points back as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. He doesn't shy from what he must do in the final three races of the season.
"We need to win,'' he said.
Keselowski has spent the past two weeks simply surviving. He said earlier this month that he expected Kansas and Martinsville to be "two of the toughest weeks for my team,'' and he was right.
After struggling at Kansas, he wasn't good in practice or qualifying at Martinsville. After the race, crew chief Paul Wolfe said that they were able to "minimize the damage'' in the points race with a sixth place finish.
"We need to do more than survive to win the championship,'' Keselowski said. "Now, over the next three weeks, we need to make sure that we have the speed to match the execution, and if we can do that, then we can win this thing.''
Some might chuckle at Keselowski's assertion and figure it's youthful enthusiasm. That's looking at him from only one angle, as so often has been done.
At one time, he was seen only as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s protégé. Then he became that wild young buck in the Nationwide Series, causing Denny Hamlin to vow retaliation and deliver it in the 2009 finale at Homestead.
The next season Keselowski refined his driving style and won more often. He gave long-time car owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR title with the 2010 Nationwide title.
Last year Keselowski was feted for his toughness, winning at Pocono just days after breaking his ankle in a crash testing. His identity increased this year when he tweeted during the delay in the Daytona 500 after Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer, becoming the first driver to tweet during a race.
Now Keselowski may be the only thing preventing Johnson from moving within one NASCAR title of the record seven shared by Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Some will look at Johnson's experience and expect him to win this championship; it's an easy enough assumption to make. The last three years when he's led the points with only three races to go (2008, '09 and '10), and he's won the crown each time.
There was a time, though, when Johnson stole the championship but wasn't supposed to. In 2006 Johnson was second to former champion Matt Kenseth with three races to go, and he rallied to win his first crown. Johnson was second to Jeff Gordon the next year at the same point and won two of the final three races to deny Gordon a fifth title (one that Gordon still continues to chase).
At some point Johnson's run will end and someone new will win the title. Maybe it's this year with Keselowski.
Johnson understands how much Keselowski threatens his title hopes.
"The championships that I've won, I saw a lot of amazing things out of my competition,'' Johnson said after his Martinsville victory. "I'm certainly seeing that with Brad. I see more of a familiar never quit, fight-to-the-end attitude that I've seen with some of the best in the sport if it's Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon. Denny [Hamlin] when I raced him, Mark Martin, they have that tenacity to stay after it and they're doing a great job.''
Keselowski and his team also have been fast, fuel-efficient and daring. That's helped him to five wins, tied for most this season, including twice in the Chase.
Sunday Keselowski tried a bold move when the caution waved 23 laps from the finish. He was sixth. Eighteen cars were on the lead lap. Tire wear had been crucial all race.
"Are you OK if I make the call?'' Keselowski radioed to Wolfe. He wanted to be the one to decide whether or not he should pit.
"Yeah, there's still going to be about 20 laps of racing,'' his crew chief said. "Whatever you think here."
"Let me go by what the gut says when they come around,'' Keselowski said.
It's a decision not many crew chiefs would allow their driver to make, but Wolfe was comfortable giving that power to Keselowski.
"Brad studies the sport, he understands what's going on, and I think there are only a few guys in the garage that do that,'' Wolfe said. "I think if you didn't have a guy that understands what's going on with his race car, I think those calls could be a lot more risky.''
Keselowski stayed out. Sixteen cars pitted. Keselowski's move allowed him to lead a lap, the first time he'd done so in the race, thus giving him a bonus point for leading a lap.
"We can do this,'' Keselowski radioed spotter Joey Meier before the restart. "Might not be able to pull off a win but we can a solid finish out of it. Be smart here and help me out.''
Keselowski was right. He couldn't hold off Johnson, who restarted behind him, all the way to the finish.
Keselowski remains close enough in the Chase that Johnson and his team need to be mistake free in the final 1,212 miles of racing this season or they could lose their advantage.
"I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead,'' Keselowski said of the final two 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. "I feel like those are two races that we can race [Johnson] heads-on in speed, maybe even a little bit better than them. I'm not quite so sure about Phoenix but you know the execution we have in this team right now is second to none.''
It will have to be if Keselowski wants to topple Johnson.