By Cory Mccartney
July 14, 2011

It's just a paint scheme and a number; color on sheet metal. But then again, it's something else. The No. 2 Miller Lite car is among NASCAR's most recognizable rides, previously piloted by Sprint Cup Series champions Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch.

When Brad Keselowski took it over this season as part of a sponsorship switch at Penske Racing, the Blue Deuce offered him a whole new level of exposure -- the beer maker, in an attempt to introduce their new pitchman to fans, put together the often hilarious Ask Brad site. But the ride also came with a whole new set of expectations for Keselowski in his second year as a full-time Cup driver.

"The Miller Lite Dodge is definitely one of the most iconic rides in our sport. With that comes pressure, sure, but I put pressure on myself to perform at a high level anyway," he said.

After a rocky start piloting Penske's flagship vehicle, he is finding his footing, and he's worked his way into the hunt for his first Chase berth in the process.

Through the first nine races of the season, Keselowski was 26th or worse five times and was sitting 28th in the standings. But since May's stop at Darlington, he's averaging a 12.8 finish, which includes a third-place finish at the Lady in Black, a win at Kansas, a 10th-place finish at Sonoma and a pole at Charlotte. He looked poised to challenge for his second victory last weekend at Kentucky, leading 79 laps (19 more than he led in the previous 17 races combined and 38 more than he led in all of 2010), but he fell behind on late restarts and slipped to seventh. Still, over the past nine events, only eight drivers have more points than Keselowski's 189.

"We've just been able to find speed in our cars, the raw speed that is necessary to be successful," Keselowski said. "After the race at Richmond, we all came together and developed a plan to get better. [Team owner Roger] Penske has been completely supportive of everything we've said that we need. Personnel changes were made. Improvements were made in our cars. I've grown as a driver. It's been a lot of small things. As Mr. Penske likes to say, 'You stack enough pennies together and you get a dollar.' We weren't very far off. That's why we were able to turn it around as quickly as we have."

It was also a matter of Keselowski's crew chief getting acclimated to life in the Cup series. Paul Wolfe, who helped Keselowski win the Nationwide Series title last season, had never been a Cup pit boss before, and this season has served as a learning experience.

"[Wolfe] had to get used to everything about the Cup series, from the cars to new faces on the team, even down to the different structure to the weekend compared to the Nationwide Series," Keselowski said. "It just took time for all of that to come together, but I had nothing but confidence in him and the team he put together."

With those early woes behind them, Keselowski now sits 21st in the points, a mere three points behind Joey Logano for what is a pivotal spot in the rankings. This season's tweak to the Chase sees the final two spots go to the two winningest drivers outside the top 10 but within the top 20 in points.

But Keselowski isn't resigned to simply slip into the Chase. Three of the eight remaining regular-season venues are among his best, including New Hampshire, this weekend's stop, where he has a top-10 finish and a pole to his credit. His sights are on a second victory, which would all but wrap up a playoff spot given that no driver outside of the top seven has reached Victory Lane twice this season.

"I really think it will take one more win to assure ourselves a spot in the Chase," Keselowski said. "There are some tracks left before the Chase starts where I think we can win, and that will be our focus."

Keselowski already has experience in closing things out; he won the Nationwide crown last year. He says the ability to deliver in that title run can help him as he tries to become that series' third champ in four years to go on to make the Chase the following season.

"The thing that both Paul and I can take away from our Nationwide Series championship from last year is the confidence that, together, we can be successful," Keselowski said. "Just like last year, Paul and I approach everything race by race. If we take each race as they come, then the points will take care of themselves."

Regardless of whether Keselowski makes the playoff, this has, without question, been a year of progress in his Cup career. A driver who had been best known as a surprise winner at Talladega in '09 and for his infamous feud with Carl Edwards already has twice as many top-10s as a year ago.

Taking over a car driven by two past champions was an unenviable task, especially for a driver still learning. Add in that Miller Lite's chief rival in the series, Budweiser, added a proven commodity this year (Kevin Harvick), and the bar was undoubtedly raised even higher in Keselowski's second full season in the Cup series. But he's beginning to meet the expected level of production, and starting to ease any doubts as the man behind the wheel of one of NASCAR's legendary cars.

Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending champ has taken a step back in the standings since Pocono, slipping from second to fifth. He put himself in position to move back up the rankings at Kentucky, but couldn't catch Kyle Busch on the final restart and finished third. Still, it may be the sign of a midseason surge, just in time for the No. 48 to head to a track where he already has 12 top-10s and three wins in 18 career starts.

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