Top 20 Countdown: No. 9 Brad Keselowski

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

Keselowski photo
(Getty Images)

2011 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
5 1 3 10 14
The countdown
No. 20: Marcos Ambrose   |   Career stats
No. 19: Kurt Busch   |   Career stats
No. 16: Jeff Burton   |   Career stats
No. 15: Clint Bowyer   |   Career stats
No. 13: Ryan Newman   |   Career stats
No. 11: Greg Biffle   |   Career stats
No. 10: Denny Hamlin   |   Career stats   |   Slideshow
No. 9: Brad Keselowski   |   Career stats   |   Slideshow
No. 8: Revealed Wednesday, Feb. 8

2011 finish: 5th

Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 10th
• Jay Busbee: 9th
• Nick Bromberg: 4th
• Geoffrey Miller: 10th

Crew chief: Paul Wolfe

Offseason action: Signed a two-year extension, keeping him at Penske Racing at least through 2014; gained AJ Allmendinger as a teammate.

2012 outlook: Put it this way: If Brad Keselowski’s career path follows the same trajectory from this time last year, he’ll have the Cup locked up two races into the Chase. Since that’s not likely to happen, the question becomes, how does Keselowski follow one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NASCAR history? Was his 2011 season a hot streak at the right time or the coming out party for a new elite driver in the Cup Series?

What’s indisputable is that Keselowski reeled off an amazing streak from July to September that saw him finish outside the top 10 only once (12th) and win twice, including a 1-2-3-1 August that launched him from the mid-20s to just outside the Chase cutoff. His three overall wins (Kansas I, Pocono II, Bristol II) gave him the inside edge on the wild card and very nearly put him into the Chase outright. (Had he done so, he would have knocked out eventual champion Tony Stewart.)

Strangely, Keselowski’s streak coincided with an ankle injury suffered while road testing; the Twitter shots of his mangled ankle were stomach-churning to say the least. But like Denny Hamlin’s surgically repaired knee the year before, the injury did little to slow Keselowski’s charge.

He faded toward the end of the year, failing to finish higher than 17th in any of the last four races. But all elements are in place for a strong start to the 2012 season. And even if he stumbles out of the gate, Keselowski can take comfort in the fact that there’s always the chance to make up for early mistakes later in the summer.

Point of interest: With the departure of Kurt Busch, Keselowski is now the senior driver at Penske; strange though that may seem, Penske saw fit to reward Keselowski and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, with multi-year contract extensions after the season. Keselowski and Wolfe teamed not only for their stellar 2011 but a dominating, championship-level 2010 in the Nationwide series.

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