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Title defense proving a test for Keselowski

NASCAR.com

Related: Brad Keselowski Press Pass

CONCORD, N.C. -- Brad Keselowski has always been a big believer in mental strength.

"I feel like if you have mental strength, that you can do anything," said the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "That doesn't mean you can jump off this building and fly, but it does mean that you can overcome pain and you can essentially turn off your body's sensitivity to it. So quite honestly, I've spent all of my focus on being as mentally strong as possible once I get behind the wheel. And once you can do that, the rest doesn't matter."

That trait has come in handy this season. Keselowski's characteristic outspokenness has at times drawn criticism, particularly a misunderstanding over race winner David Ragan's restart position at Talladega. Nearly halfway to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he's still without a victory. Crew chief Paul Wolfe is serving the third and final week of a suspension. And the No. 2 car has been forced to rebound from a string of issues on the race track, most recently a broken driveshaft that ended his run in the Sprint All-Star Race last Saturday night.

Heavy lies the crown? Perhaps not, but Keselowski has certainly felt the weight of it on occasion this year.

"Being the reigning champion, it's a good position to be in, but there are some small downsides," he said. "And certainly everyone wants to beat me, but they have to essentially have to beat 41 other teams as well. If they lose sight of that, they'll be in trouble as well, so I can't say I've been spending a lot of time (on it). I notice it, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. I know at the end of the day if we go out and do our jobs, execute, have speed in our cars, and I don't make any mistakes, that I can continue to win and be successful in this sport. That's what really concerns me."

Toward that end, the concerns are valid. Keselowski's all-star hopes at Charlotte Motor Speedway ended two laps in last Sunday, when his driveshaft broke with a thud. Although that wasn't a points event, it did curtail how much he could learn for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 on the same 1.5-mile track. And it was the latest in a string of on-track setbacks that includes a vibration at Darlington, a cylinder going down at Richmond, inspection holdups at Texas, and an engine issue at Fontana. After opening the season with four straight top-five finishes, things have become considerably more trying.

The good news is that Keselowski remains a relative safe seventh in points, and that his No. 2 car has shown plenty of speed -- at Richmond, it was working its way from the back to the front for a second time before a cylinder went down. "Rallying is certainly not an optimal situation," he said, particularly since it's prevented him from pursing race wins. But Keselowski is comforted by knowing that the pace is still there.

"I feel like we've been very, very fast and very under the radar, because we one haven't qualified well, or two, executed in the race," he said. "? If there was a right-side seat in my car and you rode with me through the last two or three mile-and-a-halves, you'd go, 'Damn, we're the fastest car out here.' Unfortunately, we haven't produced those results, and that's on us to get right. There are a number of reasons for that. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses, but I know the speed is there and speed is building block one of winning the race, and then you obviously have to have execution and luck, and we haven't put two and three together to really build the house that it takes to win. I feel like this weekend, along with any other weekend, could be that chance and that opportunity."

Charlotte is the third and final weekend Keselowski will be without Wolfe, suspended by NASCAR for violations discovered in the rear-end housing of the No. 2 car prior to the April 13 race at Texas. Former crew chief Kevin Buskirk has been filling that role since Darlington. Off the track, Keselowski has seen his profile and his platform increase markedly since becoming champion, and he hasn't been shy about sharing his opinions on the state or direction of the sport.

Since clinching his first premier-series title last year, Keselowski has talked often of wanting to be a leader as well as a driver in NASCAR. Is he succeeding?

"If he's called any meetings to order, I wasn't invited to them," deadpanned former champion Matt Kenseth. "I don't know, I don't know what that all means. Brad is very obviously opinionated, and he has definitely his own ideas, and I'm sure some of his ideas are shared by some, not sure by all necessarily. I think that's a good thing. I think that's what makes Brad Brad. I think everybody is different in this sport and different personalities are important and good. I don't know what a leader means. I know he's not my leader. I don't know if he's a leader of the drivers. I think being the champion ? maybe his opinion carries more weight, or more people are listening to what you're saying because you're the champion compared to someone who is not."

Keselowski understands it's not going to happen overnight. To him, winning a title and being willing to share insights and opinions are first steps in a journey that may take several more years -- and more accomplishments -- to complete.

"Winning a championship is step one to have that opportunity to become a leader, but there are several other steps," he said. "I'm a big believer, by the way, that anything you really want, you need to go out and really reach for it, and I'm the type of guy that reaches sometimes a little further than what I have for length in my arms. But if I could win another championship, win some more big races, do some other great things, certainly that goal of being a leader of the garage is obtainable. But step one is making sure that everybody knows what that goal is, and I hope that it's known. But I'm smart enough to realize that I still have steps to go."

One of them comes Sunday, when Keselowski tries to record his first victory at Charlotte. It wasn't lost on him that several of the new Hall of Fame selections on Wednesday night were drivers who enjoyed success in major events like the Coca-Cola 600. The more he wins, the more weight his opinions carry, and the more he positions himself to be the leader he hopes to become. First, though, is the large matter of 600 miles. That mental strength will come in handy, in more ways than one.

"I believe mental strength overcomes all," Keselowski said, "and will always be your greatest asset."

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