Stirred, not shaken

"YOU KNOW THEY'RE all waiting on me to choke, right?"

On a perfectly clear October afternoon, Brad Keselowski is working the rope line of fans at Kansas Speedway. When he spots a woman in a Blue Deuce baseball cap, the championship points leader grips her hand and looks her in the eye: "They don't think we can do this thing, do they? We're not supposed to be here -- too young, too inexperienced. Well, you know better, don't you? We'll get 'em."

Throughout the fall, the 28-year-old racer has been unflappable while chasing down what would be the first Sprint Cup title for both him and team owner Roger Penske. In just his third full-time season, Keselowski has spent nearly all of NASCAR's 10-race postseason atop the standings, and he enters the homestretch in a dogfight with five-time champ Jimmie Johnson. Two of the final three races -- in Texas on Nov. 4 and Homestead on Nov. 18 -- are in his 1.5-mile-oval wheelhouse.

Still, skeptics point to another brash youngster, Denny Hamlin, who fumbled away his points lead to Johnson over the final two races of 2010. Hamlin admits now that he was intimidated. So far, that hasn't been an issue for Keselowski. "People say, 'Aren't you worried about having to race these legends?'" The Michigan native shakes his head. "Of course not. This is why you work as hard you do. Why you built your own short-track cars, broke, and knocked on doors looking for a job. To be right where we are. It's not scary. It's expected."

Keselowski is nothing if not driven. Armed with only the last name of his well-respected short-track racer father, Bob, he has fought his way up the ladder the old-fashioned way: by winning. "Brad likes to say he's the last grassroots racer to slip in the door before it slammed shut," says Penske, who lured Keselowski away from the crowded Hendrick Motorsports pipeline. "So many young racers are handed rides for various reasons. Sponsors, big wallets. Brad's been handed nothing. He's taken it."

Sure, there have been stumbles this year. During the fifth Chase race at Charlotte, for example, Keselowski ran dry trying to stretch fuel mileage. But what impressed anyone eavesdropping on the team's radio wasn't what was said during that disaster but what wasn't. "No one screamed or cussed," says crew chief Paul Wolfe, who won the '10 Nationwide Series title with Keselowski. "Our reaction was to not panic but work the problem. We lost points, but we came back to finish 11th and kept the lead."

Keselowski credits Wolfe, a former driver, for setting the team's all-business tone. The crew chief, in turn, deflects credit back to the cockpit. "Either way," Keselowski says, "when that chemistry is working, it's hard to beat. Jimmie and Chad [Knaus] have had it for a decade now. It's been big for them. Now maybe it'll be big for us too."

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