CONCORD, N.C. -- The kid was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but he could have been straight out of central casting. Of course Josh Bralley competed in late models at Hickory Motor Speedway on Saturday nights. Of course he was a whiz on an iRacing simulator. Of course he was the one to make it out of a tournament bracket for the right to face Brad Keselowski in a NASCAR video game on the big screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The Sprint Cup points leader sized up his competition. "Josh is my Jimmie Johnson for a day," Keselowski said. "If I can't beat him, I'll just wreck him."
Of course Keselowski would make a joke like that. Within every bit of humor, there's a nugget of truth, right? After all, this is the brash, bold driver who exploded onto the NASCAR scene three years ago when he won at Talladega Superspeedway in a finish that sent rival Carl Edwards spinning into the catchfence. This is a guy whose reputation is built on aggression, who for his introductory song at Bristol has used Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down." Keselowski wrecking someone? Whether in real life or in virtual reality, it always seems a possibility.
Except that perception doesn't exactly align with the approach that's helped the Penske Racing star win two of the first three Chase races, and seize the lead in points heading back to Talladega this weekend. Thankfully, Keselowski is still brash, still bold, still aggressive on the race track -- to a point. But in recent weeks he's also shown a more clinical, calculating, downright Johnson-like side that's allowed him to do things like win last Sunday's event at Dover by saving fuel. No question, an element of unpredictability still follows Keselowski wherever he goes. But it might be time to redefine the reputation of a driver who is better-rounded than he gets credit for.
"I watched him in the Nationwide Series, and he crashed a lot of people in that series, so I was a little nervous about him when he came in," reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "He's pretty good about that now. I think he's matured a lot. He's in good race cars. That gives him a lot of confidence. And I think his driving style, he's kind of pulled the reins back a little bit and races people a little different. But he still gets the job done at the end of the day."
As his nine career victories, five of them recorded this season so far, will attest. Keselowski's headstrongness on the race track and his outspokenness off it might attract all the attention, but behind the scenes this is a driver who is carefully piecing together the elements of a potential championship run. Tuesday at Charlotte, he said he planned to scale back his Nationwide involvement for the rest of the year to put more focus on the Chase -- Ryan Blaney will now drive the No. 22 at Kansas, with other events to be determined. His older sister Dawn recently moved to Charlotte to help with his business affairs, an idea inspired by the arrangement between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley, who oversees a JR Motorsports operation Keselowski once drove for.
"Dale Jr. was kind of a role model for me in that sense with how he has Kelley and the things that she does for him," Keselowski said. "Keeps him straight in some ways. Sometimes you're just looking for somebody who has your back. I do have other people who have got my back, but it's different when it's family. I feel like there was a big uptick in my performance when she started to help me out, so I feel really good about that, too."
He may be a 28-year-old who last year wore jeans to a coat-and-tie Champions Week affair, but when it comes to racing Keselowski has a shrewdness to him that often goes overlooked. Other people talk about the randomness of restrictor-plate racing; Keselowski mentions how many times he's watched Trevor Bayne's victory in the 2011 Daytona 500, and the specific moves the Wood Brothers driver made over the course of that race that put him in a position to win. Keselowski prevailed at Talladega in May by debunking the widely-held theory that the leader at the white flag was a sitting duck, separating from second-place Kyle Busch on the final lap by rolling high into Turn 3 and driving untouched to the finish.
That wasn't luck, but a well-executed plan on what's supposed to be a roulette wheel of a race track. "He's no dummy," Busch said then. Heading back to Talladega, Keselowski believes a lot of Chase drivers will play defense, just trying to get through the race unscathed. "I don't plan on doing that at all," he said.
There it is, that aggression again, as much a part of him as his blue firesuit or Michigan accent. But now, Keselowski has the car and the confidence to use it in a more targeted manner, or to manifest it in other ways.
"I think I'm the same aggressive racer I've always been, with more confidence," he said. "The importance of the confidence is that you start to understand the moments when it's OK not to be aggressive. Don't get me wrong, you need to be aggressive to win, and I don't feel like I'm less aggressive in those circumstances. But there are circumstances where I've learned that it's really not that helpful to be aggressive. That could be misconstrued into saying I'm less aggressive -- I don't think that's the case. I think you look at races that we've won, whether it's with strategy or with moves on the race track, those are very aggressive moves. I think I'm probably less aggressive when I'm running 15th or 20th, but that's about it."
These days, Keselowski isn't running back there that often -- except when it comes to video games. Sitting in leather armchairs facing the speedway's giant HD screen, the young Bralley schooled the Cup points leader in the Activision release, "NASCAR The Game: Inside Line." Using Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car, Bralley rebounded from several early crashes to easily outdistance his more decorated opponent, whose No. 2 car was slowed by body damage. "There were more wrecks in that race than the whole season in Cup," Keselowski lamented afterward.
A Huntersville, N.C., native who had won three earlier rounds in the tournament before dispatching Keselowski, Bralley received a No. 2 team jersey and cap, as well as a miniature version of the trophy awarded to race winners at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He'll also serve as an honorary crewman on the Penske team during the Oct. 13 race at Charlotte. But no Miller Lite, at least not yet. "I'd give you a beer, but you're only 18," said Keselowski, who never got the chance to show off the fuel-saving tactics he had used so effectively at Dover only days earlier.
"I wish I could have understood a little bit better what I was doing, because I didn't do a very good job there, did I?" he said with a laugh. "I kept wrecking."
Wrecking? Brad Keselowski? Somehow they're always going to go together, even if he hasn't hit the wall since Bristol -- that by virtue of a nudge from another car -- and even if his current championship campaign is being pieced together with typical Penske precision. No need to let the truth get in the way of perception, after all.
The views expressed are solely those of the writer.