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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Seems like just yesterday that Brad Keselowski was the driver everyone said -- borrowing the phrase Boris Said delivered to Greg Biffle after Monday's rain-delayed Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen -- "needs a whupping."
His list of enemies was long. At the top were Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. They didn't call the Penske Racing driver a "scaredy-cat," as Said called Biffle, but the word "punk" worked itself into the conversation more than once.
|Brad Keselowski survived a grueling 500-mile race at Pocono to stand in Victory Lane -- broken ankle and all.|
Keselowski didn't hide behind his offensive-line-sized pit crew, though. He fueled the fire at every turn, highlighted by saying "Kyle Busch is an ass" during prerace introductions at Bristol last August.
So what happened to Bad Brad?
He matured, that's what.
Maturity is a much-overused term in NASCAR. It's seemingly the fix-all answer for everything. One example: Busch going from the "old Kyle Busch" to the "new Kyle Busch."
But there's something to it. Drivers who come into the sport with a chip on their shoulder usually learn the value of good judgment after having that chip knocked off a time or two.
Keselowski had his knocked off more than a few times.
This isn't to suggest that Keselowski isn't as aggressive as ever. His move to go from third to first on the green-white-checkered restart at Watkins Glen before settling for second to Marcos Ambrose was gutsy, to say the least.
Keselowski also is as brash as ever. When recently asked whom he would take out first in a three-driver race between himself, Edwards and Busch, he jokingly said, "Both at the same time."
But you don't hear drivers complaining about Keselowski as they once did. It's a sign that the respect factor has taken a dramatic upturn.
"It is more," Hamlin said as the Cup series heads to Keselowski's home track of Michigan International Speedway. "He races a lot different now than what he used to. He thought he was right back then, but he wasn't right. He's learning. It's winning him races now, and he's gaining lots of respect among the guys."
It's part of why Keselowski has gone from Chase long shot to Chase contender. Ranked 14th in points with two wins, he is the leader in the clubhouse for the first wild-card position.
"I don't really feel like I'm doing anything differently," Keselowski said. "I'm slowly becoming more competitive, and as you become more competitive you get more respect from your competitors, and things just get easier."
In the past 10 races, Keselowski is the only driver with multiple victories -- at Kansas and Pocono. In the past seven, his average finish of 11.2 ranks fifth behind Jeff Gordon (7.1), Jimmie Johnson (9.7), Busch (9.7) and Matt Kenseth (11.0).
In the past two, nobody can top Keselowski's first- and second-place finishes at Pocono and The Glen. That the 27-year-old driver accomplished that feat with a broken foot suffered during a test session in Atlanta has earned him even more respect.
"When you win, certainly things get easier," Keselowski said. "Performance opens doors."
Respect opens them wider.
"The way he was before, a lot of guys would race the daylights out of him just because he did it to him," Hamlin said. "Now it seems like he's giving more and receiving more."
Keselowski made his own life hell during the past two-plus seasons. It began at Talladega in 2009 when, driving a part-time Cup schedule for Phoenix Racing, he sent Edwards' car flying into the catch fence going for the win.
In Keselowski's defense, that simply was hard racing. But it always creeps into the conversation with the list of incidents that followed in the Nationwide Series -- particularly with Hamlin.
Keselowski's 2009 Nationwide season ended with Hamlin intentionally spinning him out at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week after vowing to teach Keselowski a lesson for spinning him at Phoenix.
"I've never seen so many crews applauding and giving the thumbs-up," Hamlin said at the time. "It just shows you [how many] cars he's torn up."
When NASCAR declared "have at it, boys" before the 2010 season, it was like declaring open season on Keselowski for some. Edwards sent Keselowski's car airborne near the end of the spring Cup race at Atlanta in retaliation for an incident earlier that all but ended his day.
Edwards later wrecked Keselowski intentionally to win a Nationwide race at Gateway International. Busch got into the act at the Nationwide race at Bristol in August, admitting he intentionally "dumped" Keselowski to win.
"He does it to everyone else," Busch said after the race. "Why can't I do it to him?"
Keselowski doesn't draw such ire these days.
He draws respect.
"At the end of the day most of the issues anybody ever has with people is all about respect," said Edwards, who is tied with Busch for the points lead.
As the respect meter has gone up for Keselowski, so has the respect factor for Penske Racing.
Let me explain. For almost as long as Penske Racing has existed, it hasn't had two drivers get along as well as Keselowski and Kurt Busch, who is sixth in points. Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman used to despise each other, never sharing information in the way it takes to win titles.
Newman and Kurt Busch got along better, but the engineers and crewmen who went through the Wallace-Newman era never developed a pure open-book policy.
That didn't happen at the beginning of this season, either. Like one top chef giving another his secret recipe, it seemed that a key ingredient in the setup often was left out during the first three months to spoil the final product.
There also was the trust factor. Kurt Busch's crew and the engineers who work on his cars didn't totally buy into what was going into Keselowski's cars. Quite frankly, the No. 22 team hadn't done anything to warrant their trust.
But sometime after Kurt Busch's profanity-laced tirade at Richmond and Keselowski's win at Kansas, the lines of communication opened to a point they never truly have had at Penske Racing.
"Brad came in with a certain connotation," said Travis Geisler, Penske's competition director. "There was this little uneasiness about the whole situation. Until he showed he was able to go out and run with Kurt a little bit, it was hard for him to develop that comfort level with somebody as a peer.
"How are you, if you're LeBron James, going to solicit advice or respect the opinion of somebody that you're kicking their ass every week?"Now the teams are feeding off each other. There have been times recently when Kurt Busch has gone with Keselowski's setup, something he would have been reluctant to do a year ago, when his teammate was 25th in points.
That has put the lone Dodge team in a position to keep up with the powerhouses. Through 22 races, Kurt Busch and Keselowski have three wins, as many as the four-car team at Hendrick Motorsports.
They're also competitive percentagewise in laps led with 725, an area in which they were woefully lacking the past few years. Keselowski is a big part of that, already leading 177 laps after leading only 41 a year ago in 36 events.
But what makes Penske Racing a real threat this season is the communication.
"I wasn't here [for Wallace and Newman], but I saw some of the remnants of what was going on," Geisler said. "It was not a healthy situation. You had the old and the new and it just clashed too hard."
Had Keselowski not ditched his punk reputation, he might have clashed with Kurt.
"It's neat to see his maturity continue to grow," Kurt Busch said. "The 'Bad Brad' label is not as bad."
Many in the garage believe that Keselowski and Busch simply have found more horsepower. Geisler insists there's been no change, that communication simply has produced better setups that have allowed the cars to go faster.
"One of the most unreported things is the complete turnaround the company has seen over the last three or four years as far as respect that teammates have for each other -- and really you could say over the last year," Keselowski said.
It almost has been a perfect storm. The equipment has improved to the point where Keselowski doesn't have to push as hard. He can be a much smarter driver without forcing issues and ticking off competitors.
It has allowed his teammate to trust him.
That ultimately, with apologies to Said, could help Keselowski whup everyone in the Chase.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.