Brad Keselowski, provocative on and off the race track, still can be a splinter under a rivals skin, a stone in a tight shoe, a speck of dust in the eye, a paper cut in short, an irritant.
That is such an improvement. Only a couple of years ago, more than a few who joust with him at speed regarded the assertive newcomer to NASCAR Sprint Cup ranks as an irredeemably irksome pain in the anatomy.
Keselowski, only 28 but on the brink of a championship at the highest level of his profession, probably would not agree that he has changed that much since he bulled his way onto the scene in 2009. But the perception of him has.
Respect for the Michigan native who talks the talk but also walks the walk may be grudging. But what would be the basis for withholding it? Complaints now, given Keselowskis success and a less combustible style, would be dismissed as sour grapes.
A 15th-place finish or better Sunday in the season finale Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway would secure the first Cup title not only for Keselowski but for legendary Roger Penske, owner of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team.
The achievement would be all the more laudable given the rival Keselowski has engaged in a nine-race Chase stare-down to this point without blinking: Jimmie Johnson, a five-time champion with a remote shot at a possible sixth.
On a recent Showtime Inside NASCAR show, Keselowskis words revealed not only his aggressive approach to the Chase but the shoot-from-the-lip candor that has ruffled feathers on occasion.
He spared no verbiage in expressing admiration for Johnsons inarguable mastery at the wheel. But in direct response to a question about the most daunting element of challenging Johnson and the formidable No. 48 Lowes team, Keselowski said pointedly:
I think the most difficult part is that he has done this so many times that the competition around him races him as though theyre defeated.
Keselowski serves as counterpoint. At Texas two weeks ago, while attempting to protect a lead gained by a two-tire gamble on the final pit stop, he banged door-to-door with Johnson at the risk of wrecking both. Johnson prevailed, but Keselowskis boldness reaffirmed that its not in his makeup to defer to the veteran.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted in an off-handed defense of his driver Tuesday, To be honest with you, thats the most aggressive Ive seen Brad all year. Weve had fast race cars. He hasnt had to push issues.
Indeed, Keselowski has complemented two victories with six other top-10 finishes in the nine Chase races and an 11th in the other.
He turned a seven-point deficit into a 20-point advantage at Phoenix when Johnson, attempting to chase down Keselowski, blew a tire, smacked the wall and finished 32nd.
Surprisingly, long-time adversary Denny Hamlin came to Keselowskis defense at Texas after several other drivers questioned Keselowskis daring. I just thought it was two guys who were really trying to fight hard for a win, he said. I think it may have been a championship moment.
Hamlin went on to call Keselowski one of the best racers out there and to conclude, Really, to me, theres no resemblance from the Brad before to the Brad now.
Turn the clock back three years to the 2009 Ford 300 Nationwide race. Hamlin carried out a vow made after the two tangled at Phoenix a week earlier to retaliate. He bumped Keselowski into a spin down the straightaway.
Though NASCAR black-flagged Hamlin for a one-lap penalty, Hamlin quipped, It was well worth it. I thought when I went down pit road I had won the race. Ive never seen so many crews applaud and give thumbs up.
Keselowski admitted in a telephone interview nine days ago, There are some things I probably could have done a little bit better [during his Cup baptism]. But I feel good about how things have gone.
Of the attack mode exhibited from the outset of his Cup career which produced a spectacular 2009 victory at Talladega, Ala., in his fifth start Keselowski said simply, Youve got to fight for your spot in this sport Theres always someone who wants to challenge you and push you to the next level.
That mind-set grew from a lifetime exposed to the sport. Hes a third-generation driver. Bob Keselowski, his father, won 24 races and a championship in the Midwest-based ARCA stock car series. His uncle, Ron, raced in NASCARs top series in the early 1970s with a career-best six top-10 finishes in 1971.
But some who initially perceived Keselowski as a mouthy upstart with a chip on his shoulder some would say a two-by-four have been forced to re-evaluate. Keselowski is no less forceful on the track. But he has become more prudent.
Wolfe extols Keselowskis emerging leadership skills. When Brads around, he said, he finds a way to be able to motivate everyone around him.
In addition, Wolfe allows Keselowski more input in race-strategy decisions than most crew chiefs. Thats a matter of trust and the fact Keselowski studies the sport and is attuned to what the car needs and the situation demands, Wolfe said.
Keselowski last week equated the role the driver should fulfill with that of an NFL quarterback. Its not enough to be an elite athlete, he said. You have to be a great decision-maker and a great leader, and thats why you see certain guys in football who are successful and more who are not.
Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion who has watched Keselowskis development from the ESPN television booth, spoke glowingly not only of what he is achieving but also whats in the future.
This is a young man who has a tremendous amount of talent and is going to be heard from for a long time, Jarrett said. Hes a breath of fresh air.