Keselowski has look of contender

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Brad Keselowski stole the show for the second straight year at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Only this time he did it with his driving and not his mouth.

He may be on his way to stealing something even bigger -- like a championship.

Yes, the driver who said "Kyle Busch is an ass" during introductions before the night race here a year ago, the one who two days ago stirred things up with critical comments on Twitter about how Danica Patrick advanced her racing career, is on top of the Sprint Cup world.

Not in points, mind you. But no driver is hotter.

Saturday night's victory at BMS was his second during a four-race stretch that has seen him finish first, second, third and first. For those doing the math, that's an average finish of 1.75.

Over the past five races, that average is 3.2, resulting in a 12-spot jump in the points standings.

Those are the kind of numbers that win you titles. Just ask the driver with four titles who finished third on Saturday.

"Keselowski, those guys are on a roll right now," said Jeff Gordon, who is on a pretty good roll himself. "We all have to keep our eye on him. He's strong. … They're to me as strong of a team out there as there is."

The irony is that the No. 2 Penske Racing team has flexed its muscles over the past four races since Keselowski suffered a broken ankle during a test session at Road Atlanta.

"Since then, he's been on fire," Gordon said. "He proved to all of us he's tougher than we thought. We always knew he was a great racecar driver."

Perhaps not a smart one, though. Keselowski jumped off the hood of his car in Victory Lane to send a few shock waves through the ankle that will take months to heal.

"Stupid is as stupid does," Keselowski said in his smart-alecky but charming way.

Stupid is to overlook Keselowski in the championship run. With all the focus atop the standings with Busch and five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, now tied for the points lead, Keselowski is having the kind of season that could earn him Comeback Driver of the Year and Driver of the Year in the same year.

Only 12 weeks ago, Keselowski was 25th in points and going nowhere fast. Then he started going fast, winning at Kansas and starting a 12-race run in which he has an average finish of 11th.

He's now 11th in points, only 21 points behind Tony Stewart for the 10th spot that guarantees a berth in the Chase. He's all but guaranteed a Chase wild-card with three wins, but those three wins would be much more valuable if he gets inside the top 10, where bonus points are given for wins.

But Keselowski wasn't thinking about the Chase when he took the checkered flag at Thunder Valley. He was thinking about what it means to win at the half-mile track that has a who's who list of champions.

"This is the race that Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt won," Keselowski said. "It's the race of champions. I can't believe it. There are races that pay more. There are races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all.

"We won it!"

Keselowski didn't appear a threat to win for more than three-fourths of the race. Gordon and Matt Kenseth, who finished sixth, were dominant, leading 206 and 110 laps, respectively.

But on the final pit stop, Keselowski came out second with four tires and started inside of Martin Truex Jr., who had taken only two new tires. Keselowski quickly moved to the lead and steadily built it, particularly after Gordon and Truex got into a grueling battle for second over the final 57 laps.

And no, Gordon says he didn't think of Truex's vow of revenge for an incident at Infineon Raceway two years ago.

"At Sonoma, I made a huge mistake," Gordon said. "Tonight … I wanted to prove to him I could race him hard and race him clean for position. … Now if we had been racing for the win it might have been a little different."

Keselowski has been racing for the win for most of the past three months. His meteoric rise indeed has everybody paying serious attention. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, even stopped in the media center to give a thumbs up.

"Hey, it's Chad Knaus," Keselowski yelled with a huge grin.

The timing of Knaus' entrance was incredible. Keselowski had just been asked what it meant to outrun the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella that he opted to leave after his 2009 season with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series for an unknown quantity at Penske Racing.

The smile was replaced by a serious look, one that showed the depth that makes Keselowski one of the best interviews as well as best drivers in the garage.

"Sometimes in life you have to step back and look at the complete picture and … know that you have to let go, you know, to get what you want," Keselowski said.

Keselowski wanted to be a Cup driver and Hendrick didn't have an opening. The reality was team owner Rick Hendrick could talk about the possibilities of moving to Cup in 2010 or 2011, but there were no guarantees.

Keselowski said that sometimes in life "you have to let go of what you have, leave your comfort zone to make it to the next level."

"I'm sure, although I didn't have a slot at Hendrick for the 2010 season, I'm sure Rick and his team would have figured something out," Keselowski said. "But I wasn't sure what that was going to be. I had an incredible opportunity Roger [Penske] gave me. I knew that if I made the most of it, he would reward me."

He knew the list of bad things that could have happened had he stayed in the HMS infrastructure was longer than the list of good things. In Penske Racing, he saw only the good that could come out of starting a Nationwide Series program and driving a Cup car full-time.

"The biggest negative was people telling me I was an idiot," Keselowski said. "But people tell me I'm an idiot every day, so I was immune to that."

Nobody is calling Keselowski an idiot today. He's gotten past the disrespect that made him a target for payback for most of the past two seasons. He's proving that the championship he won in the Nationwide Series last year with crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn't a fluke.

He's proving a Cup championship wouldn't be one, either.

He's on the kind of roll that Gordon and Johnson had when they were young up-and-coming drivers. Asked if he can keep it up the next 12 weeks, Keselowski said, "I haven't heard any voices in my head yet, so it should be all right."

"Let's ask Jimmie," continued Keselowski, who was a miserable 25th in points a year ago. "But I'm going to have fun with it. Success doesn't guarantee future success, and I'm a big believer in that. But it sure as hell doesn't hurt."

Keselowski is confident. It shows on the track and it shows on Twitter, where on Thursday night he remarked that Patrick may have opened a Pandora's box that may hurt all female drivers by posing half naked for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and other magazines to advance her career.

But he's always been confident. He wouldn't have made the jump to Penske if he didn't believe in his abilities.

Now the rest of the NASCAR world is starting to believe he's for real.

"The information I had, I believed in my heart it was the right decision," Keselowski said of the move to Penske. "I'm glad we're able to perform now and prove that it was. The performance, at the end of the day, is always the proof."

Now he's stealing the show with that performance.

Next could be a title.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.