RICHMOND ——It's a function of the fickle nature of NASCAR that a guy who was once one of its most polarizing drivers might have more friends on the track than anyone this weekend and could be a championship contender, though he isn't even in the top 10 in points.
Never mind that Brad Keselowski's season appeared toe-tagged as recently as three months ago. Heading into Saturday night's Splendiferous Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway, he and his Penske race team are assured a spot in the Chase for the Big Doorstop.
"I think that we've been able to execute at a really high level," Keselowski said Friday. "This sport, I think there are several keys to success. Obviously, you have to have fast race cars, all those things. You've got to have a little bit of luck.
"But the biggest percentage of the pie, so to speak, of success in this sport is to execute. And we've done that very well over the last few weeks. We have decent speed, probably not the best speed. But top-10 speed and we're executing at above top-10 level, so I think that's been our strength."
Keselowski's strength has been evident in a couple of areas. He's recorded six consecutive top-10 finishes, with two wins, and has been in the top 10 in seven of the past eight races. That's vaulted him from 22nd to 11th in points.
His three victories assure him a spot in the Chase in NASCAR's new top 10-plus-two wild-card format, which relates to his position as a man with many amigos.
If Keselowski sneaks into the top 10 in points, then it frees up an extra wild-card spot for one of the dozen or so racers with mathematical chances to make the Chase field.
"Certainly, there are a lot of people who have my best interest in mind," he said. "But whether they can remember that in the race car has yet to be seen. We'll just have to figure out how that works out. I'm not quite so sure how each and every one of them will react to it.
"Everyone reacts differently to the pressure of making the Chase entails. We'll just have to see. I hope they give me some breaks. It's in their best interest. It would be kind of dumb if they didn't, but we'll just have to see how they react."
Keselowski's toughness and resolve have factored into his current streak. He broke a bone in his left ankle in a nasty crash while testing at Road Atlanta in early August.
Booted and braced, and with an ankle that looked like an eggplant, he won at Pocono the following weekend.
He limped and grimaced his way to four more top-10 finishes. He led late at Watkins Glen before road course guru Marcos Ambrose muscled past him in a green-white-checkered flag finish. He registered an impressive win at Bristol. He finished sixth in Atlanta last Tuesday.
Keselowski's weekly performance has become so routine that no one even asked him about the ankle Friday.
This year, the guy known for his outspokenness and at times spectacular run-ins with the likes of Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin has become respected throughout the garage as a racer and competitor.
"Each year I've been doing this at the Cup and Nationwide level," Keselowski said, "I feel like I've been able to grow a little bit here, a little bit there. Sometimes it's pronounced, like it's been over the last two months and sometimes it's not. And I think the areas that you'll see that we need to improve on to become a championship team are perhaps the less pronounced areas."
Keselowski, 27, is in just his second full Sprint Cup season. Though he's liable to be the only Chase rookie in a field full of playoff veterans, he doesn't see that as a drawback.
"I think that each Chase is different when you look at it," he said. "Each year is different, who the players are. Sometimes experience can be good, sometimes you can learn from it and know what you need. There's some years where it can be bad. You have those preconceived notions. With the new point standings being what they are and some of the things we've seen change in the sport, I don't feel like I'm at that large of a deficit not having Chase experience, so I'm not concerned about it."
Keselowski said he and his team are looking for a bit more speed, in order to catch up with Jeff Gordon's cars. He acknowledged that five-time champ Jimmie Johnson has the strongest team, mentally, which presents its own challenges.
"I know that personally I need to grow another step to have a shot at it," Keselowski said, "and it'll be interesting to see as a team if we can do that. The fact that we've been able to grow like we have over the last few months is a great indicator, but it's not a guarantee that we can make it happen. But I feel like we have a legitimate shot and that's all I can ask for."
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit. Follow him on twitter at @FairbankDP.
WHERE: Richmond International Raceway.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
AT STAKE: Final three spots in the 12-man Chase are up for grabs. Odds favor Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Danny Hamlin, in that order.