Just 19 months ago, Brad Keselowski faced an uncertain future in NASCAR.
In the early summer of the 2007 Nationwide Series season, his owner went broke, putting Keselowski out of a seat. He was an unemployed 23-year-old with a résumé filled with back-of-the-pack racing.
Some of those drivers never catch another break. But Keselowski's phone rang during the week of a Truck Series race when Germain Racing's Ted Musgrave had been suspended for a race and the team needed a one-shot replacement.
Keselowski took the gig and put the Toyota Tundra on the pole. It was the best vehicle he had wheeled in NASCAR at the time and he got everything out of it, leading 62 laps, including 42 in the late stages while battling with former Truck champion Travis Kvapil.
Kvapil won after a questionable move that sent Keselowski spinning and ultimately to 16th place, but the youngster had made his mark.
Two weeks later, he was back in Nationwide in a JR Motorsports car at Chicagoland Speedway. Almost two years later he's still there, now 25 years old and coming off a two-win season in which he also won the most popular driver award. He's the young face of a Nationwide Series always hungry for the Next Big Thing, someone to battle the slumming Sprint Cuppers.
It all started with one fortunate break 19 months ago at a Truck race.
"That was a pivotal moment, a defining moment," Keselowski said. "It's funny, I think about that a lot, what would have happened had I not run as well as I did. I was very fortunate to have got that opportunity, then to make the most of it."
He's making the most of the opportunity born from that opportunity. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was looking for a driver who would protect his equipment and drive it to the front, and hired Keselowski to finish out the '07 season. He drove well enough to keep the seat for the '08 season, where in his first full Nationwide campaign Keselowski finished third in points with 11 top-5s and wins at Nashville and Bristol.
"You just have to hope you're lucky like I was with Brad," Earnhardt said. "It happened to work out. I had good equipment, I was looking for a driver, and he just happened to be in the right place at the right time in his career."
That career is skyrocketing, with Keselowski set to make seven Sprint Cup starts for Rick Hendrick in the No. 25 Chevrolet and perhaps as many as 10 starts for Phoenix Racing, including the Daytona 500.
But Keselowski's full energies are focused on Nationwide, where he'll try to interrupt the annual parade of Cup drivers who poach wins and championships in NASCAR's version of Triple-A ball. Not since Martin Truex Jr. in 2005 has a driver without a full-time Cup seat won the title, and last year the inequality continued between the Cup stars and Nationwide regulars.
Clint Bowyer, a model of consistency with 29 top-10s in his Richard Childress Racing No. 2, won the championship. Carl Edwards finished second while winning seven races. Kyle Busch made 30 starts and won a third of them, with Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin combining for another nine wins in the nearly unbeatable Joe Gibbs Racing entries.
There wasn't much left on the table for the rank and file, but Keselowski claimed two of the six events won by non-Cup regulars and was first in that championship within a championship. Yet he was still 300-plus points behind Bowyer and Edwards.
Bowyer won't defend his title, opting for a part-time schedule, but Busch is stepping up to a full season in the No. 18 Toyota. Edwards also returns for his fifth season of double duty in the top two series, creating the potential for a Kyle-versus-Carl rivalry to play out twice every weekend.
"I'm sure it's going to be there," Busch said. "[But] Keselowski looked really well at the end of last year. He was strong, and there was a few other Nationwide guys that looked like they had something going on that they could contend with every week, too."
Mike Bliss (No. 1 Phoenix Racing Chevy), Jason Leffler (No. 38 Braun Racing Toyota) and some intriguing rookies should have their moments, but Keselowski enters the season as the top contender of the Nationwide-centric drivers. The series sponsor is even banking on it, using JR Motorsports as the focus of its 2009 marketing campaign.
Among Nationwide Insurance's initiatives is a "Dash 4 Cash" program that adds $25,000 to the winner's purse in stand-alone events at Nashville, Kentucky, Iowa and Memphis. The kitty isn't open to full-time Cup drivers and the money rolls over to the next event if a Nationwide regular doesn't win. There's also a $50,000 bonus to the Nationwide specialist with the most points across all four races.
As if those guys need any more motivation against NASCAR's elite.
"It's not that big of a deal with Kyle and Carl because they are running the whole season, but I feel a little more ownership when it comes to the guys that only come in and run 16 races," Keselowski said. "There's a little bit there. I'm very proud of the series. We're seeing a lot of competition."
Keselowski didn't see any in his Nationwide life before JR Motorsports. His first team, Keith Coleman Racing, never got on sound financial ground and its cars suffered, with Keselowski never finishing on the lead lap in 20 starts in 2006-07 and cracking the top 30 only four times with a top finish of 34th.
In those days he was happy for the seat time but lacked the equipment and confidence to make a name (he also ran a number of Truck races, including the full 2005 season in a family-owned ride, with little success). He never could have imagined talking about a championship just a few years later, but that's how quickly things change in racing.
"It's been a ride, I can tell you that," Keselowski said. "You just don't know how things are going to go. I'm a lottery winner in a sense. The best way to win the lottery is to buy a bunch of tickets, and buying tickets to me is just keeping your foot in the door and sticking around and working hard at it.
"Once the ball got in motion it seems like it's just snowballing, it's growing, and I don't know how to explain that. I've been lucky to be in the right place at the right time."
Now he'll find out if he's the right driver to end the Cup regulars' domination in the Nationwide Series.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.