2011 RESULTS 3 wins, 10 top fives, 14 top 10s
2012 OUTLOOK Unlike last year, the confident Keselowski is now primed to be a contender from the get-go.
THE SWARM BEGINS THE SECOND THAT BRAD KESELOWSKI steps out of his hauler each week. Microphones and tape recorders are thrust in front of his face. Autograph seekers hover nearby, hats literally in hand waiting to be signed. Later Keselowski will have sponsors to greet and celebrities to meet and seemingly a thousand different people who want to talk with him.
All this attention is directed toward a driver who—outside of the Cup garage—was a virtual unknown just two years ago and who suffered through a dismal Sprint Cup rookie season in 2010. But that's what happens when somebody has the type of break-through that Keselowski experienced in '11. At age 27 he won three races, qualified for the Chase and finished fifth in the point standings, one spot ahead of five-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson.
It's enough to make a guy want to pinch himself to ensure he's not dreaming, right? "I wish I had enough quiet time to pinch myself," Keselowski says with a smile. "But yes,  was definitely a dream season. To think about how far we've come in the last two or three years is just amazing."
No driver improved during the second half of the 2011 season as much as Keselowski did. Over the first nine races the number 2 Penske Racing team failed to crack the top 15, capped by a dismal 36th-place finish at Richmond in late April that left Keselowski in 28th place in the standings. "There were some dark days," Keselowski says. "Certainly after Richmond, that was a miserable, miserable day. I was surrounded by good people who didn't let it get us down or let me get down. We were able to just keep plugging away and get better."
Did they ever. Beginning in early June, Keselowski had nine top five finishes and 13 top 10s over a 20-race span to jump all the way to third in the standings. That extended surge—despite a minor slump over the season's last four races—means that Keselowski enters 2012 as a real contender for the Sprint Cup championship, riding momentum as well as new-found confidence.
"This was basically a new team," says Keselowski, whose crew included several new members in 2011. "For us to compete for the championship really bodes well for our future. The success we had changes the goals and expectations for 2012. Now we want to fire out of the box strong, compete for wins early and show everyone that we are going to be a legitimate team for years to come."
Keselowski continues, "It's a feeling that, Hey, we can do this, as long as we do things the right way. Confidence can make a big difference, but you also have to be driven to improve."