HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Remember Bad Brad?
Granted, he's difficult to forget. All those Nationwide Series run-ins with Denny Hamlin, the ugly Sprint Cup rivalry with Carl Edwards, the sight of that red No. 12 Dodge flipping over onto its hood at Atlanta (watch), early-morning peace summits with NASCAR officials -- it all left an impression and created an image, one that fairly or not followed Brad Keselowski wherever he went. This was the guy who held his line at Talladega and never expressed any remorse, who did it all with that devilish smile, who competed with a style that literally and figuratively could rub people the wrong way.
Some of that guy is still around, of course, evident in the door-banging finish two weeks ago at Texas (watch) or the way he's steadfastly refused to play it safe even in the later stages of this title Chase. But this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway he's been replaced by another version of the same driver, this one years in the making, who by Sunday evening could be known by another, altogether different moniker.
Sprint Cup champion.
It's more than possible, given the 20-point lead he holds over Jimmie Johnson entering Sunday's finale, given that he only needs a 15th-place finish to hoist that big silver trophy for the first time. As recently as 18 months ago he was a driver better known for his run-ins than his achievements on the race track. Now he's on the brink of delivering Roger Penske's first Cup title, of taking a quantum leap forward in his career, of slaying the greatest closer the sport has ever seen by beating Johnson with a style that's calculating yet uncompromising all at the same time.
How did it happen? How did Bad Brad evolve into potentially the champion of NASCAR's premier series? Listening to those who have worked with him, a dash of maturity seemed the missing link in a driver for whom effort and desire were never at issue. Just as he pushed and prodded and demanded to make his former JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team better, he's done the same at established Penske Racing. Keselowski is the type who knows what he wants, then goes out and gets it, sometimes by force of will.
"I'd have to say that Brad has not only pushed me as an individual, he's pushed the team in a positive direction, and he's delivering," Penske said. "It's one thing when someone is pushing you and they don't deliver, but he seems to be able to give us that extra push [and] deliver on the race weekends, and that's what we're expecting him to do this weekend."
He did the same thing at JRM, where his former teammates will talk about Keselowski climbing underneath the cars of other organizations to see what they were running. If he found something he wanted to incorporate on his vehicle, he pushed and pulled until he got it. In that manner, he lifted JRM from a middling outfit to one that contended for race wins and titles on the Nationwide tour, something the team has been unable to maintain since his departure for the Sprint Cup ranks. At Penske, it's been the same thing. Even at 28, Keselowski exerts so much influence that he was instrumental in the hiring of Joey Logano, whom he hand-picked as his teammate for next season.
"You have to really know him," said Rick Hendrick, who owns Johnson's car, and co-owns the JRM team where Keselowski once worked. "He's very energetic, and all he thinks about is the race. You respect someone that's that talented and that committed."
Asked which of his former drivers Keselowski reminds him of, Penske selects four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears -- who also just happens to be Johnson's idol. A strange choice, perhaps, given that the cool and understated Mears seems a lot like a certain five-time NASCAR champion. But the former open-wheel star was always able to "dig deep and make it happen," Penske said, certainly a characteristic he shares with the current driver of the organization's No. 2 stock car.
But it goes beyond the race track. Keselowski is in contact with Penske nearly every day, texting back and forth with his 75-year-old boss. He doesn't just ask to be involved in the day-to-day workings of one of the most storied teams in racing -- he almost demands it. As evidenced by Logano's hiring, Keselowski provides his input on personnel. Penske asks Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe to make lists, to denote things they think might improve the team. Keselowski isn't shy about taking him up on the offer -- when he thought Penske needed to upgrade its fitness center, the organization made it happen.
"The list has made us a lot better," Penske said. The car owner believes that same savvy translates onto the race track, a method behind the madness of fuel gambles and two-tire stops that make every race with Keselowski an adventure. They've promised to not alter that style, not even now, when all they need is 15th place to secure the crown. But that doesn't mean Keselowski doesn't know how to race smartly, something that at times gets lost among the bold moves and aggressive tactics.
"You know, he's a calculating driver," Penske said. "He's smart. I think his windshield is much wider than many of the drivers'. He's seeing what's going on, and I think he's rehearsed it with Paul, things that can happen. He's done it with the team, and he's a student. And I think today we've got a great athlete, a great race driver but also someone that's thinking. He's a thinking man's driver, which is very important in today's sport."
A thinking-man's driver is indeed a long way from Bad Brad. Clearly, Keselowski's rough areas have been smoothed out, producing a driver who appears completely composed even on the brink of the biggest race of his life. Everyone can see it. "It's not surprising to me that Brad is where he's at," said four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "Last year I thought that he showed a lot of maturity."
Richard Petty, who works with Keselowski on some efforts involving the Paralyzed Veterans of America, has noticed it as well. "You looked at him last year and you said, 'What is Penske doing? What is he thinking?'" the seven-time champ said. "But he bops out this year and all the stars get lined up, so you never know. You watch him in Nationwide and from time to time he seemed pretty good, and the next time he was busy running over somebody. Between him and the crew chief and the team together they've matured a little bit. They've gotten to be steady and you know what to expect every week and he steps up. He drives the fool out of the thing."
Perhaps the greatest testament is the fact that the closest thing Keselowski has had to an on-track incident in this Chase was his fender-banging finale with Johnson at Texas. Any old rivalries or grudges seem to have faded with time. Now Keselowski is the voice of reason, calling out other drivers for retaliatory actions last weekend at Phoenix. If Bad Brad were still around, he wouldn't even recognize himself.
"I think the most important thing that's happened [is] he's gained the respect in the garage area," Penske said "Because early on he was rough, he was bumping people. There was [the incident] with Carl Edwards and other people. But I think that he's emerged. He's learned like a lot of the great drivers that have gone through that rough patch. He's emerged, and I think to me, the speed that he's come from where he was when he first started with us to where he is today -- smooth, understanding the car, and ultimately being a winner -- to me is amazing."