Brad Keselowski pushing the limits

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Visions of Charles Bronson toting a nickel-plated .32 Colt revolver through the streets of New York City raced through my mind last weekend when Tony Stewart said Brad Keselowski had a "death wish" the way he raced Jimmie Johnson in the final laps at Texas Motor Speedway.

OK, maybe not.

Keselowski, 160 pounds dripping wet, wouldn't scare a nun in a dark alley with his somewhat goofy smile and aw-shucks demeanor. He's about as intimidating in street clothes as Justin Bieber is in concert.

But put the Penske Racing driver in a 3,400-pound stock car and he exhibits the same kind of fearless toughness Bronson did in the 1974 thriller. There's something inside Keselowski's normal common-sense personality that makes you wonder how far he will push it to achieve his goal of beating Johnson for his first title.

It's a trait that could make Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN & WatchESPN.com) and next week's finale in South Florida epic.

"When you get in a car, to be an elite driver, you turn the fear off," said Keselowski, who trails Johnson by seven points. "You think about, 'What am I going to do to win the race today, what chances have I got to take?' and that's how I proceed.

"For me, being a race car driver, it's about finding limits, pushing them, breaking them, expanding them and trying again, over and over again. It's that constant cycle, and when that happens, it happens because you're not afraid. That's the only way you can get yourself to push those limits further."

Stewart made a lot of daring moves en route to beating Carl Edwards in last year's championship. He did things that left us with our jaws dropped and eyes wide.

But he never did anything that had fellow drivers questioning his sanity as Keselowski did on the next-to-last restart at Texas when he forced Johnson high into the rubble to the point that both almost lost control.

"We made a lot of moves last year, but it wasn't anything that made anybody have to run up the racetrack," Stewart said. "There's a way of doing it right and wrong."

Keselowski might have been on the edge, but wrong? He's racing for a championship against a driver who has won five. He has to be daring, risk-taking.

"I'm sorry, but 'death wish' is pretty funny," Keselowski said with a laugh.

There is nothing funny about Keselowski's willingness to push the limits.

"My dad told me early in my career that I probably wasn't going to be a really good football player, probably wasn't going to be a really good player of any of those type of sports," Keselowski said. "But when you get in a race car, you don't have any of those disadvantages.

"I don't have to worry about fighting a 300-pound lineman or taking a hit from a linebacker that weighs 280 and can run faster than I can. When I get in a race car, I'm the same size as everyone else and it comes down to what level of heart you have and what mental preparation you have to hang it all out there."

Stewart might call that a death wish. I call it more of what the sport needs, the reason Keselowski is in a position to win a title.

Way too often, we see drivers unwilling to take chances, unwilling to push it to the edge, for fear of wrecking and taking a hit in the points. When they do, they sometimes get criticized, as Keselowski was last week, as Kyle Busch was early in his career.

They should be praised. Appreciated.

"I was really impressed from what I saw from both drivers at the end of that race," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "You saw both of them dig down and produce results that you don't see on an every-day basis.

"Some of the most incredible racing that I've seen in a long time between two guys in a situation like that. I was fortunate enough to be close enough to see it, and it was quite something to see."

Hopefully, we'll see more of that the next two races. Hopefully, we'll see Johnson and Keselowski going door to door, racing for the win on the final lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway the way Stewart and Edwards did a year ago.

That doesn't mean either driver should intentionally wreck the other. But we should expect them to push each other into situations that make them uncomfortable, as each did at Texas.

"That's good, hard racing," said Keselowski, who will start Sunday's race 14th, 10 spots ahead of Johnson. "But he never did anything to deserve to be wrecked, that's for sure. I'm not in the habit of just wrecking people just to wreck 'em.

"Now, obviously, if somebody does something to push me around, that's a little different."

Asked whether that meant he would give somebody a nudge to win the title, Keselowski smiled and said, "Well, I didn't say I wouldn't give him a nudge. I just said I wasn't going to wreck him, intentionally. If he chooses not to save it, that's another [story]."

Laughter filled the media center. It was the kind of reply we've come to expect from Keselowski. Those who have been wondering for weeks whether he will crack under the pressure of competing against a future Hall of Famer had to realize it's not going to happen.

For me, being a race car driver, it's about finding limits, pushing them, breaking them, expanding them and trying again, over and over again.

-- Brad Keselowski

Watching his family nearly go bankrupt trying to keep him in racing was pressure for Keselowski. This is fun.

"The good Lord willing that we get through Phoenix and we're in position to win the championship, I am going to show up at that racetrack mentally prepared because I've been through moments that were far more stressful than that and far more challenging for me personally," Keselowski said.

"It's because of those moments that I'm prepared for these opportunities."

That doesn't guarantee he'll be able to overtake Johnson, who won the past two weeks from the pole and has the better record at Phoenix with four wins and an average finish of 5.3 (compared with 22.2 for Keselowski).

As Clint Bowyer reminded us Friday, Johnson doesn't crack to pressure, either.

"I called him a butthole," Bowyer said. "That would be the PG-13 point of it. He's just a pain in the butt. He won't go away."

But this does mean Keselowski isn't going away without a fight, without taking whatever chances he deems necessary to win.

Johnson respects that.

"To his credit, he did a nice job of getting it right to the edge, and we brought home race cars," he said of last week's battle. "We weren't wadded up looking like a bunch of fools over there and handing the [other contenders] a big gift."

That's not a death wish.

That's a wish to win.

"I'm going to push him as hard as I can," Keselowski said. "And you know what? If he does win it, which I don't plan on letting that happen, but if he does win it, he's going to look back at this time period and say he never fought any harder than he had to fight me.

"He's earned his spot in the sport and his success and deserves that credit, but I'm not about to lay over."

It's not quite as dramatic as Bronson's character asking the bad guy if he believes in Jesus, then responding to the affirmative with, "Well, you're gonna meet him. Bang!"

But it sure has the making for a good sequel.