BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Brad Keselowski was a long shot, at best, to race for the NASCAR championship this season.
Then he turned it up a notch and became a legitimate contender to make the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
Now, he's the hottest driver in NASCAR and is forcing everyone to consider him a serious threat to unseat five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
Keselowski picked up his third win of the season -- second since breaking his ankle in an Aug. 3 crash -- and took a huge step toward making the Chase.
"I don't know what more to say about Brad and the (Penske Racing) team," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "They're strong, and you put them in position at the end of the race, they're going to pull off the wins. They're, to me, as strong of a team out there right now."
It's an amazing turnaround for Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing team.
He was ranked 21st in points four races ago, when his struggling team went to a test session to work on road course improvement. But Keselowski was in a nasty accident during that session that left him with a broken ankle.
It's hardly slowed him.
Since the accident, Keselowski won at Pocono, finished second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan and now has the Bristol victory.
Although he's walked gingerly in the month since the crash, he hopped up and down in excitement as he climbed from his Dodge.
"An awesome car, an awesome team!" he yelled. "Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt won this race. It's a race of champions. There are races that pay more, that are races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all."
But Keselowski regretted all the post-race celebratory jumps about an hour after the race.
"Stupid is as stupid does," he said. "Last 100 laps I was certainly starting to feel it. But you know, I don't think anybody wants to hear me whine. Every once in a while I do and they tell me just to shut up anyway, and it hasn't been very productive. It obviously has felt better. I wish I wouldn't have jumped off the damned car."
The win moved Keselowski up one more spot to 11th in the standings, and he's jumped 10 spots over the last four races. He's currently in position to claim the first wild card spot, and could clinch his berth next week at Atlanta by virtue of his three wins.
What's the secret of his turnaround?
"A team that just starts to click and believes in each other," Keselowski said. "We've just made good adjustments to our cars over the last few months. We made good adjustments to our car today and we find ourselves in Victory Lane. I can't believe it, I really can't."
Other Chase hopefuls didn't fare so well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Clint Bowyer began the race ranked ninth, 10th and 11th, but because none has a victory, they could get bumped out of the Chase depending on how the wild cards develop. Earnhardt wasn't a factor Saturday night and finished 16th, Bowyer struggled the entire race and was 26th and Stewart had a miserable weekend -- he qualified last in the 43-car field, was quickly lapped and finished four laps down in 28th.
It was no better for Paul Menard, who could earn a wild card spot based on his victory at Indianapolis. But he struggled, ran into the back of Denny Hamlin as they tried to avoid an accident in front of them, and wound up 30th.
At the front of the field, Martin Truex Jr. finished second and Gordon was third despite leading a race-high 206 laps. Five-time defending NASCAR champion Johnson was fourth and was followed by Jamie McMurray and Kenseth, who led 110 laps.
Hamlin, clinging to one of the wild cards, rallied to finish seventh despite Menard running into the back of his car to cause serious damage. He jumped one spot in the standings to 13th and is currently holding the second wild card because of his one win this season.
"We did what we had to do," Hamlin said. "I wish I could race harder, but at this point we have to have solid finishes. If we just handle business the next couple weeks then we'll be OK."
Kyle Busch, who on Friday picked up his record 50th Nationwide Series victory and was looking for his third consecutive win at Bristol in the Cup race, finished 14th after bringing out the final caution of the race with 87 laps to go when a tire issue sent him into the wall.
The finish also cost him in the standings: Busch is now tied with Johnson for the Sprint Cup Series points lead.
"Kind of disappointing day," Busch said. "We just never could get the car to where it would feel like it had in the past."