JOILET, Ill. -- Brad Keselowski did not sneak quietly into Sprint Cup racing -- far from it. Instead, he made his presence known in one of the loudest, most spectacular ways possible. In only the fifth start of his Cup career, in 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski refused to back off as Carl Edwards attempted to block him on the low side of the track as the two drivers raced toward the finish line. As a result, Keselowski clipped the rear end of Edwards' car, sending it airborne and into the catch-fence along the track's front stretch. With carnage raining behind him, Keselowski sped away to his first Cup victory in one of the wildest finishes in NASCAR history.
It would have been easy for a young racer in his position -- driving for a part-time operation, no less -- to express regret for the incident that took out an established star in the sport. But just as he had done on the track, Keselowski did not back off one bit in his post-race comments that day.
"I'm sure [Edwards] probably regrets that now, but I certainly don't," Keselowski said after the race in 2009. "It was up to him on whether he wanted to run me down or not, and he did, and I just held my ground. I was here to win and I've got no other reason to be here than to win and put these guys in victory lane. Holding your line was the way to do it.
"I'd do the same thing again. Trust me in what I say: without hesitation."
We should have all known right then that this was no one-win wonder. Despite his boyish looks and lack of Cup experience (he was only 25 years old at the time), Keselowski immediately was displaying the win-at-all-costs mentality that most of the great drivers have. Would Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Tony Stewart have backed off in a similar situation, even as Cup rookies? It's extremely unlikely.
Yet here we are three years later still seemingly underestimating Keselowski. His victory at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday in the first race in this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship gives Keselowski a total of seven wins over the past two seasons, second during that span only to Tony Stewart, who has eight. Keselowski was the hottest driver on the circuit entering this year's Chase, with six top-five finishes and nine top-10s in the previous 10 races.
But despite all his success, Keselowski was rarely mentioned as one of the favorites to win the championship. Most analysts went with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Others chose Denny Hamlin, who entered the Chase with a series-best four victories this year. Greg Biffle was considered to be a legitimate contender, as was defending champ Stewart even though he limped into the Chase with only one top-10 in his previous five starts. Even Jeff Gordon was given a decent shot despite needing a furious rally to secure the final Chase berth in the last race of the regular season.
As for Keselowski, he was considered by most to be a dark horse at best. Yes, he is a talented driver with great potential, but this is still only his third full season in Sprint Cup racing. Certainly it must be too soon for him to actually win the championship. Right?
Well, maybe not. Keselowski currently sits atop the standings with a three-point lead over Johnson and an eight-point edge over Stewart. And he continues to display his racing bravado and overall disregard for what his fellow drivers might think. Following the final round of pit stops at Chicago, Keselowski pulled onto the track in front of Johnson, forcing Johnson to lift off the gas ever so slightly. That was enough to enable Keselowski to take a lead he would never relinquish. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, loudly complained to NASCAR officials that Keselowski had re-entered the track too soon, but to no avail.
Keselowski proclaimed his innocence when asked about the incident after the race, though he did so with a bit of attitude.
"There is no enforced line like you see in other sports, and that's not a bad thing. That's just one more thing to monitor during the race," Keselowski said. "You can make rules that count it down to the inches and just make it a pain in the ass for everybody that participates in the sport, or you can just have a [general] rule like we do, and I felt like I was inside those guidelines."
Keselowski is a lot like the football or basketball player who can irritate other teams, but is beloved by those who play with him. His swagger rubs off on his pit crew, which has consistently been one of the best in the business this season. Even 75-year-old team owner Roger Penske says that Keselowski's attitude can be infectious.
"He has been an amazing young guy," Penske said following Sunday's race "He's a very constructive driver from the standpoint of our people within the company. We had a lunch this past Monday. Brad just revs them up. He goes around and thanks them, and that's important. These [Cup drivers] are big deals, big stars. But I think he has the roots from his family and the way he started to work with everybody from top to bottom. [Sunday] was a byproduct of that.
"He won't let me sleep, I'll tell you that. I get Twitters [from him]. I'm a big texter now. He and I are talking all the time. I tell him, 'I've got to get to my day job sometime.'"
Keselowski was in Penske's ear even before he was driving for him. During the 2009 season, while running a handful of races for James Finch -- the part-time owner who supplied him with the winning car at Talladega -- and then Hendrick Motorsports, Keselowski was already campaigning for a full-time Cup ride.
"At one point he came by to see us and said that he'd like to come and race for our team," Penske recalled. "He said, 'When I do come, I want to help build a team to win the championship.' That was the year before he started with us. He's been focused.
"He went through a lot of rigmarole [early in his Cup career], some maybe he was due, some he wasn't. But I think he's managed to develop a lot of rapport with the drivers. I think they trust him wheel to wheel. He's not a reckless guy at all."
Indeed, despite Keselowski's willingness to push things to the very edge, most of his fellow drivers do not seem to harbor any ill will toward him. Even Johnson did not appear to be overly upset about Keselowski cutting in front of him near the end of Sunday's race.
"It did impede my progress. I had to check up and wasn't sure where things were going," Johnson said calmly. "But it didn't affect the outcome, I don't believe. The way he made quick work in traffic and stretched it out on me, I'm not sure I would have held him off. At the time it messed me up, but I don't think it played an outcome in the race."
Either way, in the end it was Keselowski -- not Johnson -- celebrating in victory lane. That is the bottom-line objective for Keselowski whenever he slides behind the steering wheel of his racecar.
"It's my goal to be a Sprint Cup champion, to be a winner," Keselowski said. "Racing is one of the few things I've ever done in my life that has been able to take me to another level mentally and physically. [...] I approach it as though I was a baseball player at the plate, and you know there are 100 mile-an-hour fastballs coming at you all the time. There's always somebody trying to beat you. But if I go down, I'm going to go down swinging the bat as hard as I can each and every time."