During Jimmie Johnson's most dominant years in NASCAR, he had no rivals. Sure, Denny Hamlin and his team tried to put the pressure on during the 2010 Chase – but Johnson and Chad Knaus flicked them away like a speck of dust.
Two years later, Brad Keselowski is setting himself up to be the latest threat to Johnson's run. And armed with an honest streak and a won't-back-down attitude, Keselowski just might be able to back up his talk.
"The 48 has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned, but it's my job to not roll over and give it to them," Keselowski said. "... Although they might have the most speed, we're not giving up. We're going to keep 'em honest through this Chase. That's our goal."
During the final green-flag pit stop sequence of Sunday's NASCAR race at Michigan, Keselowski and his team thwarted the No. 48's strategy by emerging with the lead – which left Johnson and Knaus asking each other how it could have happened. Keselowski seemed to delight in befuddling the five-time champions and said afterward it was "good to know that they're frustrated, 'cause they should be. We nailed it."
Though he was later passed by Johnson – before Johnson's engine blew up in the final laps – Keselowski launched several verbal missiles toward the Hendrick Motorsports camp. The budding rivalry has a chance to develop further in the Chase, and it may just be getting started.
Keselowski's comments focused around the mechanical advantage which the Hendrick cars seem to have discovered. Since June, competitors have been talking about the rear ends of cars like Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., which seem to be moving around.
NASCAR put one rule in place to address the issue, but drivers said at Indianapolis it did nothing to weaken the Hendrick cars' performance. On Sunday, Keselowski shed more light on the situation.
"There's parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive," he said. "Some guys have it, some don't. There's a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty."
Keselowski said his team has not felt comfortable enough to risk its good name and reputation over working in that area of the car. And while it's not illegal, he said, it's "living in a gray area."
"Roger (Penske) doesn't do that," he said. "There's certainly some performance there that we...haven't gained, because we choose not to do that. That's something that we have to continue to evaluate every week that goes by, that those components are permitted to be run. We have to make a reevaluation of that internally to decide if that's the right way to go."
The "tricks," as he referred to the setups during his stint as ESPN's In-Race Reporter on Sunday, are being used by six-to-12 cars and have separated the field more than in recent years, he said. The driver added it's had the effect of disrupting NASCAR's parity.
"You've seen qualifying, the pace difference between 20th and pole was over a second," he said. "We haven't seen that in over 10 years in this sport."
Despite not using the tricks for his own team, Keselowski said he feels primed to challenge Johnson for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. And the way he's been running lately – Keselowski has scored more points than any driver in the last seven races – it's starting to seem like a realistic possibility.
And he wants Johnson to know the No. 2 team is coming.
"I can taste the legitimacy of being a championship contender," he said.