SPARTA, Ky. -- To think how far Brad Keselowski has come in the last three years, all one has to do is turn the clock back to 2009 and think about how a confrontation between he and Juan Montoya during a Sprint Cup practice session might have gone down then.
Montoya made his one and only Chase for the Sprint Cup field that season. But did you know he won one less race that year than Keselowski, who captured his first Cup victory at Talladega while driving for owner James Finch?
Still, Keselowski hardly commanded the kind of respect then that he does now. In three short years, he has become such a force in the garage that he's forced veteran drivers to respect -- and in some cases, no doubt -- fear him at least in terms of what he can do with a race car.
In Keselowski's mind, Montoya messed with him during the first lap of the first practice last Friday at Kentucky Speedway. In Keselowski's mind, that was unacceptable. He retaliated -- and in doing so, risked putting his No. 2 Dodge team in a hole from which it could not have hoped to climb out of within the next 48 hours.
Instead, they appeared to use the incident as motivation. They pulled out and quickly prepared a backup car in sweltering 100-degree heat, getting it ready just in time for him to gain the practice time he needed. And when the race weekend was completed shortly before midnight Saturday, Keselowski owned yet another race victory -- his series-high third Cup win of the season and the seventh of his still-young career in just his third full-time season.
"That just shows the importance of teamwork, and that the group of guys that I have on this Miller Lite Dodge are just bad-asses," Keselowski said.
The same could be said of Keselowski behind the wheel these days. He thought Montoya messed with him during the practice last Friday, and he wanted to make sure Montoya knew he wasn't going to put up with it. So at the risk of damaging his primary car -- which he did -- Keselowski made his point. Three times.
"Well, I don't like being pushed around -- and I felt like ... on the race track that someone was pushing me around. And I don't like that," Keselowski said. "I hate that. I can't stand it, and I won't stand for that. I don't know if that creates a level of desire that makes us better, but I can't stand it."
The slender, wiry Keselowski doesn't look like he could take much of anybody in a street fight. But when you can drive a 3,400-pound stock car with the speed and ferocity that he does, and when you have a bunch of "bad-asses" in your pit stall backing you up, you don't really need to be able to throw a good left hook to get to where you want to go.
That would be Victory Lane, of course.
He's been there seven times now in just 106 career Cup starts. More importantly, last year he won enough to earn one of the two wild-card berths into the Chase before finishing fifth in the final points standings. This year, his three wins virtually guarantee another spot in the Chase -- but he obviously has no plans to go in as a wild card again.
He wants to finish in the top 10 in points so his victories will mean something heading into the Chase, as in 10 bonus points apiece. Last year the wins he had prior to the Chase counted for nothing in terms of bonus points because the wild-card entries don't get to carry them over for the start of the Chase.
And Keselowski has big plans for this year's Chase.
Keselowski told the media Saturday night that they've been looking at the current points standings "all backwards." He contended that it doesn't matter who's leading them right now. All that matters is who is in the top 10 when the Chase cutoff arrives, and how many wins those 10 championship contenders have pocketed.
"The only thing that means anything is how the points are going to be reset when the Chase gets going, when it starts," Keselowski said. "That's going to be based of who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins. That is the only thing that matters.
"That's where my heart's at, and that's what I want. I want to be the guy with the most wins and inside the top 10. ... Wins and being in the top 10, that's all that matters."
Keselowski was the only driver to participate in all three NASCAR races at Kentucky -- the Camping World Truck Series race on Thursday, the Nationwide Series race on Friday and the Cup race Saturday. He finished second, seventh and first, respectively, and was still bouncing around like the Energizer bunny when all of it was over, like he wondered what race he might be able to enter Sunday.
Not just enter, but conquer.
This kid is taking the Cup Series by storm, and he's doing it on his terms. Oh, and Montoya? At one point he told his team over the radio Saturday that, in his opinion, their performance was "embarrassing" and they had to rally at the end just to finish 14th.
Hailed in 2009 as the next great driver in NASCAR, Montoya has won precisely one Cup race since then and has just two victories in 198 careers starts overall. Both wins came on road courses. He has yet to triumph on an oval.
But you can bet on one thing for sure. Montoya, the former Formula One and IndyCar star, may not have known who Brad Keselowski was in 2009. Certainly he does now, and so does everyone else in motorsports.
Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.