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'Big Bad Brad' stops in Albany, talks NASCAR hot streak

Winner of two of the last four races, the hottest driver in NASCAR, Brad Keselowski, left, poses for a picture after signing an autograph for Albany’s Wennette Hughes on Thursday during Keselowski’s tour of the MillerCoors Brewing Plant. Keselowski, who is sponsored by Miller Lite, is in Georgia this week to compete in Sunday’s race in Atlanta. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

Winner of two of the last four races, the hottest driver in NASCAR, Brad Keselowski, left, poses for a picture after signing an autograph for Albany’s Wennette Hughes on Thursday during Keselowski’s tour of the MillerCoors Brewing Plant. Keselowski, who is sponsored by Miller Lite, is in Georgia this week to compete in Sunday’s race in Atlanta. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY -- Brad Keselowski gingerly walked up a flight of stairs Thursday during a tour of the MillerCoors Brewery in Albany, reluctantly putting weight on his left ankle.

It was Keselowski's first appearance in Georgia since Aug. 3 when he slammed his No. 2 Miller Dodge into a retaining wall at Road Atlanta at nearly 100 mph during a test run.

Since stepping out of his crumbled car with a broken ankle and a bruised back, Keselowski has turned into the hottest driver in the Sprint Cup Series, winning two of the last four races, while placing second and third in the other two.

The first of those victories improbably came four days after breaking that ankle at Pocono, so it would have been hard to see all the success coming after a wreck he called the worst of his career during an exclusive interview with The Albany Herald on Thursday.

"I thought, 'Oh (shoot), this is going to hurt," Keselowski said about what was going through his head as his brakes went out and he was speeding toward the wall. "I realized right away there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I was in a lot of pain. I just didn't know what was permanent and what was temporary."

Keselowski signs autographs, takes pictures with fans, MillerCoors employees

ALBANY -- Sprint Cup driver Brad Keselowski spent more than an hour signing autographs and meeting fans and MillerCoors employees at Albany's MillerCoors Brewery on Thursday.

He told The Albany Herald it was a great way to give back to both his sponsor and his fans.

"We enjoy the relationship we have with Miller Lite," Keselowski said. "Without Miller Lite, what we do on the race track wouldn't be possible. NASCAR relies on sponsors, and Miller Lite is a great partner of ours at Penske racing."

The No. 2 Miller Lite show car and Keselowski's merchandise trailer were both at the Brewery for fans to enjoy.

"We have a lot of fun giving back to that sponsorship," said Keselowski just before he took a tour of the brewery. "Being here in Albany today is a great way of saying thanks to the people who make it all possible by making the beer and getting it all done. It's a lot of fun."

The pain turned out to be temporary, but his success since that wreck has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Since then, Keselowski has crept up into the 11th spot for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and is within striking distance of 10th-place Tony Stewart heading into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Keselowski hasn't had too much success in Atlanta -- placing 25th and 36th in his two races on the track last year -- but he still feels a connection to the raceway just outside of Hampton.

"Atlanta is a track that I look back at very fondly," Keselowski said. "It's a track that helped me get my big break to drive for Dale Earnhardt Jr."

During the spring of 2007, Keselowski was in Atlanta competing in a Busch Series race and caught the eye of Earnhardt.

"Dale was up in one of the suites watching the race, and I had a really strong run," Keselowski recalled Thursday. "He was up there watching, and he had a lot of good things to say about me the next time we saw each other. I think that was the moment that impressed him and when he thought I deserved an opportunity."

Earnhardt gave Keselowski the opportunity to drive the No. 88 United States Navy Chevrolet for the rest of the season on the then-named Busch Series, and Keselowski, 23 at the time, ended the year with five Top 10 finishes.

He became one of the best drivers on the Busch Series -- later renamed the Nationwide Series -- during the next several years and occasionally had a good showing in a Sprint Cup race.

Now he is one of the most feared and respected drivers in all of NASCAR.

"I don't know what more to say about Brad and the (Penske Racing) team," Jeff Gordon told The Associated Press after Keselowski's most recent win Aug. 27 at Bristol Motor Speedway. "They're strong, and you put them in position at the end of the race, they're going to pull off the wins. They're, to me, as strong of a team out there right now."

Keselowski has a lot of confidence in himself and his crew right now as he prepares to extend his streak of Top 3 finishes to five.

"We are in an upswing as a team and have a lot of positive momentum," he said. "It's been a great streak. The cars are fast, and we have been executing as a team. Speed is the foundation of the sport as far as being successful. We have speed and we are executing, whether it's on pit road or behind the wheel or pit calls."

Confidence is something Keselowski has always had, however. Even after breaking his ankle, he was certain he had what it took to win at Pocono later that week -- despite being a huge underdog to do so.

"If you don't think you can win before you go to the race track, you shouldn't go," Keselowski said. "We had a good weekend at Pocono and a good car. We were able to capitalize on it when it counted."

His hot streak brought him all the way into one of the two wild-card spots for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, which are awarded -- in NASCAR's newly revamped format -- to the two drivers outside of the Top 10 with the most victories. Keselowski's three victories have him comfortably in the top wild-card spot, but he said Thursday that sneaking into the Top 10 is the true goal.

After all, the Top 10 drivers -- not the two wild-card recipients -- receive bonus points for each victory that goes toward Chase seeding.

Keselowski is 21 points behind Stewart and needs to finish an average of 10 spots better than him in the final two races to slide into the Top 10.

"(Stewart) is going to have to struggle," Keselowski said of what it will take to get into the Top 10. "I think he would probably tell you that the last few weeks haven't been a bed of roses. But he is also coming up on his best race tracks, so we will see."

Even if Keselowski doesn't earn a spot in the Top 10, he has earned the respect of his fellow NASCAR drivers, something 18-year Cup veteran Jeff Burton said Keselowski was "worried about" earlier in his career.

"Brad came in a little too worried about all that, concerned that he wasn't going to be getting (respect), and I think that bothered him," Burton told The Associated Press in an article detailing Keselowski's sudden rise. "Some people come in and don't even worry about it. You know at some point you're going to have to have everybody's respect, but you can't lose sleep over it.

"You've got to go and be who you are. You've got to race the way you know to race. You've got to be true to who you are, and you have to understand that there's consequences to that, good and bad."

On Thursday, Keselowski, who has been given the nickname "Big Bad Brad," said he realized that respect has arrived.

"Success breeds respect, so as we have been more successful, respect will come," he said. "All you can do is try your best to be fast and execute. That will give you success, and respect will come with it."

And as for that nickname that has seemed to fit him quite well in the past month?

"I don't particularly care for it. It's not creative, and I don't really care for nicknames," he said about being called "Big Bad Brad." "I'm fine just going by Brad Keselowski."