Jerry Markland - Getty Images for NASCAR
In May 2007, I was sitting in the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center when a skinny kid wearing a black firesuit walked into the room.
He was not there for a press conference or a sponsor announcement, but apparently just to network with the media. It never hurts a driver to show his face in the media center, and I didn't even know who he was – which I guess was the point.
The kid, whose stature reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite, walked up to where I was seated with a co-worker and started chatting with us. Turned out he was a Busch Series driver for Keith Coleman Racing who usually finished somewhere in the 30s and sometimes start-and-parked.
With a firm handshake, he introduced himself as Brad something. Didn't quite catch the last name.
Anyway, Brad something was out of a ride a few weeks later when Keith Coleman Racing shut down, and I figured that would be the last time we ever heard of him. Too bad. Seemed like a nice guy, but that's racing.
Boy, was I wrong. Five years later, the skinny kid in the black firesuit is leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings with seven races to go. Brad Keselowski has been proving people wrong all along the way.
Doubt him all you want, and it doesn't matter; Keselowski will come to the track to perform and execute his game plan with success whether you think he can or not.
This year's game plan is to win a championship. And while five-time champ Jimmie Johnson is still the favorite – and has the advantage of experience – there's no telling what Keselowski is capable of doing.
Trying to make predictions about Keselowski's performance are a waste of time. It seems almost weekly that he shows up at a racetrack where he has a poor history or a mediocre average finish and then runs in the top five all day or wins the whole darn race.
Take Dover, for example. On Friday, he brushed off questions about the track being one of his weak spots. All that mattered, he said, was how well his team has been running lately.
He was right. Sunday's victory was his fifth of the season, and he's won on all types of different tracks: Big tracks (Talladega), small tracks (Bristol), intermediate tracks (Kentucky and Chicagoland) and Monster tracks (Dover).
Keselowski does not look like a guy who should be winning NASCAR races at all. Nerds who get stuffed in lockers are more intimidating than Keselowski. If he wasn't strapped into the car, the lightweight might blow around the track and get stuck to someone's grille like a hot dog wrapper.
But in Keselowski's case, appearances are quite misleading. He's a fighter who used to scuffle with kids in middle school, a tough guy who believes in manning up no matter how difficult the situation and a hard-nosed racer determined not to let anything – or anyone – stand in the way of achieving his goals.
He's also a highly intelligent, analytical thinker who seems to carefully evaluate situations both on and off the racetrack. Nothing Keselowski does seems to be spur of the moment; each of his actions or words have a greater purpose behind them.
Lately, Keselowski is also becoming more of a leader. He's gained a veteran understanding of how important team-building can be, and it's a skill many drivers don't come to grasp until later in their careers. In Sunday's post-race news conference, Keselowski said the word "team" 17 times and "we" 34 times.
Despite all that, few could have predicted Keselowski's sudden rise. When he entered the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2010, he finished 25th in points and had just two top-10 finishes all season. And now? He's in position to challenge for his first career Cup title at age 28.
Can Keselowski get it done this season? The guess here is no. Not yet, anyway. Johnson didn't win his first championship until age 31, and that was only after he'd come close a couple times before.
Of course, betting against Keselowski is a risky move – and it often backfires. When it does, he's not the type of guy to rub it in, but you can hear his laugh all the way from Victory Lane.