Brad Keselowski has more than once referred to Talladega Superspeedway as "its own animal" in recent weeks. It's a beast he tamed just five months ago, but Keselowski knows that past successes and a recent hot streak are no guarantee of impending glory on NASCAR's most unpredictable track.
Keselowski leads the Sprint Cup Series standings by five points over Jimmie Johnson heading to Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), the fourth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason. But Keselowski knows well that no points lead is safe at Talladega, where an otherwise strong day can end in tangled machinery.
"There's not one strategy that works consistently to keep you out of trouble, which is part of what makes it so unique," Keselowski said Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of the Chase's fifth round. "I haven't really put a lot of thought yet into Talladega; it's still pretty early in the week, and I've found every time I go to Talladega with a plan, they usually change it. I haven't really thought about it that much, and I don't know if I'm going to."
Even if strategies may not be at the forefront for Keselowski just yet, the mental tenacity to compete flat-out for 500 miles in large, close-quarters packs is a requirement. Keselowski scored his first career Sprint Cup win at Talladega in 2009, famously making last-lap contact that sent Carl Edwards tumbling into the catch fence within sight of the checkered flag. His most recent Cup win at the 2.66-mile track relied more on smarts than brute force.
Keselowski pulled one over on conventional wisdom at Talladega last May, leading with one lap remaining while plenty of rivals were in line to slip past for the win. But Keselowski used Kyle Busch's push for as long as possible before deftly breaking their slipstream and coasting to a relatively easy victory.
Those laurels, combined with his winning two of the first three Chase races in style, aren't enough to convince Keselowski he's peaking in a quest for his first Cup championship.
"It's easy for me not to get too high emotionally knowing that there's still seven races left," said Keselowski, who announced he would cut back on his NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule the rest of the year to focus on his Sprint Cup efforts. "We're not even a third of the way through this, and that's a long ways to go."
If there's a dark horse points-wise at Talladega, it could be the driver on the opposite end of the Chase spectrum. Matt Kenseth opened NASCAR's playoffs with a whimper, but his strength this season on restrictor-plate tracks Talladega and Daytona has been unquestioned. He has a Daytona 500 win and a third-place run at the Florida track this year and placed third at Talladega in May.
"For the first time in my career, I'm probably really looking forward to going to Talladega," said Kenseth, who sits 72 points behind Keselowski. "Our plate stuff has been extremely strong this year. I think we've led a lot of laps all three plate races. They all ended in a green-white-checkered (finish); unfortunately lost the last two, I messed up both of them and didn't do the right things, but we've had really fast cars."