A career-altering moment on the line for Keselowski

jutter@charlotteobserver.comAugust 31, 2013 

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Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Hertz Ford, leads Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the #12 Penske Truck Rental Ford, during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International on August 10, 2013 in Watkins Glen, New York.

TOM PENNINGTON — Getty Images

— It wasn’t his first wreck nor will it be his last.

Yet for much of Brad Keselowski’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, the violent wreck between him and Carl Edwards in the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2010 – and the feud it started – seemed to define Keselowski’s young career.

The confrontations with Edwards were both good and bad. Clearly, Keselowski was not going to be intimidated by or back down from veteran drivers. The reputation that came with it – as a brash up-and-comer who needed to wait his turn – likely didn’t benefit the prospects of long-term success in the sport, however.

Regardless, Keselowski went on to flourish with Penske Racing and won the 2012 Cup series championship – team owner Roger Penske’s first in a long, distinguished career in the sport.

Keselowski returns to Atlanta for Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 with similar prospects of a career-altering moment on the line. He desperately needs a victory – or at least a good finish – to help ensure his participation in this season’s Chase, which begins in two weeks.

Another subpar performance and Keselowski gets closer to joining Tony Stewart as the only driver to win the championship one season (2005) and fail to earn a chance to defend it the next (2006) since the Chase format’s inception in 2004.

“I know there are some people that look at it and say, ‘You’ve got to be scared about not making it.’ I look at this as a tremendous opportunity to prove the merits of our team and that we can operate at a high level,” said Keselowski, who will start 23rd.

“Our back is against the wall. But these are the times where great teams step up and they make something happen and where great drivers step up and they make a play.”

In recent weeks, Keselowski has been adamant about his desire to win races as the surest way to qualify for the Chase. He abhors the “points racing” mentality.

The reality of Keselowski’s situation, however, is that he likely has a better chance making the Chase gaining automatic entry by being ranked in the Top 10 in the series standings than fighting it out for a wild card with a host of others should he win a race.

With only two races left before the 12-driver Chase field is set he is 11th in points, just four behind 10th place Penske teammate Joey Logano.

And with Keselowski having tested at Atlanta and the site of next weekend’s race, Richmond, Va., his No. 12 Ford team is as prepared as it can be.

“We don’t have the confidence that we had at this time last year, and that’s something that I will admit,” he said. “But if we come out guns ablaze these next two races, we’ll get that confidence real quick.

“I think we are in good position to do that.”

Keselowski is also confident that should he and his team succeed in qualifying for the Chase, that will not be the end of their 2013 season.

“When you’re racing for a championship, you’re racing to prove you’re the best. When you’re racing to make it in the Chase, you’re racing for survival, you’re racing to prove that you just belong,” he said.

“I think it’s definitely a separate mentality, and I think you see people that are OK with justifying their whole season by, ‘Hey, we made the Chase.’ I’m not one of those.”

Utter: 704-358-5113. Twitter: @jim_utter.

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