Brad Keselowski's biggest moment in the last few days wasn't winning at Pocono; it wasn't all but clinching a spot in the Chase. It was walking away, albeit with a limp, from an accident that very easily could have taken his life.
During a test session Wednesday at Road Atlanta, Keselowski lost the brakes in his No. 2 Dodge as he entered the 90-degree Turn 1. Speeding toward a steel barricade, he tried pumping what little brake he had left, managing to slow his car down about 50 mph. But when he smashed into the barricade head on, he was still traveling some 100 mph.
The nose of his race car was smashed in, its engine pushed back into the cockpit. Keselowski's feet, stiff against the pedals, were compromised. He was left with a sliced up right foot, a broken left ankle and a really sore back, injuries that appear rather pedestrian in comparison to the condition of his race car, which was a crumpled mess.
In this era of extreme safety, when we take for granted that drivers will walk away from the most vicious of wrecks, Keselowski's crash was a reminder that driving a race car is still a very risky business.
That he was physically able to race all 500 miles Sunday was a minor miracle. That he was able to do it at a track where only a few years ago Jeff Gordon slammed a wall harder than he ever had before speaks to a mental toughness that goes beyond just "getting back on the horse."
"You man up," Keselowski said after Sunday's race. "That's what it's all about in this sport."
In a throw-back moment, Keselowski drummed up memories of Ricky Rudd racing with his eyes duct-taped open or Dale Earnhardt Sr. racing with a broken back.
Throughout the weekend when he wasn't inside his car, Keselowski sported a walking cast. In order to race, he had to be cleared by NASCAR doctors. Yet, when he woke up Sunday morning, he still thought he could win, a position shared by him and, well, him.
"When you let the pain get into your head that far that you don't believe you can win anymore, you'll never win," Keselowski said. "I woke up this morning feeling like we could win the race. … If you don't feel that way, you're never going to win at anything you do."
Denny Hamlin, always a factor at Pocono, dominated early on, leading a race-high 65 laps. Just past the halfway point, rain halted the race for 90 minutes. When it restarted, the Penske Racing duo of Kurt Busch and Keselowski were running 1-2 thanks to an off-cycle pit strategy.
Prior to the rain, they pitted, gambling that the race would re-start. When it did, the leaders headed to pit road, clearing the way for Busch and Keselowski to drive to the front.
The rest of the way was a three-driver battle between the Penske teammates and Kyle Busch. For Keselowski, the situation called for him to go for broke. Sitting outside the top 20 with only one win, second place wasn't going to do much for him in his quest to make the Chase. A win, however, would.
With 12 laps to go, Keselowski wrestled away the lead for good from Kyle Busch.
As soon as he crossed the finish line, Keselowski transformed from Chase long shot to leader in the clubhouse. By virtue of his two wins, he holds the provisional No. 1 wild-card spot. As long as he's inside the top 20 five weeks from now, Keselowski will make the Chase.
"I haven't really thought that far yet," he said. "Shoot, we just need to go out and do what we've been doing, everything will be fine."
Conversely, Hamlin did not improve his playoff hopes. Instead of solidifying his Chase spot with a solid run at one of his two best tracks, he came home 15th. While he still holds the second wild-card spot thanks to his one win and sitting 11th in the standings, his grip on it remains tenuous.
When the 12-driver Chase field is set five weeks from now in Richmond, Sunday's race will have played a major role in determining who gets in and who doesn't. Who would have thought that after what went down at Road Atlanta just a few days ago?