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Brad Keselowski is a full-fledged breakout driver now

From The Marbles

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The win two weeks ago with a wrecked foot was surprising enough. Following that up with a second-place finish at a road course was impressive. And now, Brad Keselowski has put the finishing touches on an impressive trifecta with a third-place finish at Michigan.

It's way too early to say Keselowski has fully "arrived" as a star driver; three races do not a legacy make. But unlike other drivers who have shown up strong one week only to vanish the next, Keselowski is running legitimate smart-and-strong races. His momentum is hitting at exactly the right time, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the 2011 Chase.

He's now running so well that a top-10 position, unthinkable even a few short weeks ago when Keselowski was mired outside the top 20, is an outside possibility.

"I'd be proud either way to get into the Chase," Keselowski said, "but it'd mean more if I was in the top 10."

That's probably not going to happen, since it would require either Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr. to have crippling failures in at least two of the last three weeks. But it's not going to matter; Keselowski has now taken on the role of the team you don't want to meet in the playoffs: nothing to lose, playing with total confidence.

Once the Chase starts, you have to consider how legitimate and realistic each driver's chances are of running for the Cup. Getting in is nice and all, but really, how many of the top 12 have a shot at the championship? This year is more wide-open than any in recent memory, with at least six drivers looking like they have the capability to run strong for 10 straight weeks.

Keselowski's not quite in that company, not yet. But the way he's run this past month, he's gained the respect of the entire garage and much of NASCAR fandom. The days of him ticking off everyone from Carl Edwards to Denny Hamlin are long gone; now they have to worry about keeping up with him, not avoiding him.

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