Brad Keselowski hungry to reclaim his place at the top

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Taking a field of the finest stock car drivers on the planet to the proverbial woodshed would give anybody a heaping dose of confidence.

So it went for Brad Keselowski, who after burying the field last Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, declared over his team’s radio that “this feels like championship form to me.”

But those words weren’t just solely derived from the thrill of victory.

After defeating Jimmie Johnson for his first Sprint Cup title in 2012 and then being unable to defend it last year when he failed to make the Chase, Keselowski has aimed to show that he is indeed one of the best drivers this sport has to offer.

His Team Penske crew has responded, giving him fast cars almost every week. And on Saturday night, he emphatically converted that speed into a statement performance at Kentucky, leading 199 of 267 laps en route to his second Sprint Cup win of 2014.

Could that effort prove to be the start of his drive to a second Cup title? Why not? His win at Kentucky in 2012 served that very purpose, after all. Following that particular triumph, he earned two more wins and 16 Top-10s over the final 19 races of that year, which proved enough to hold off Johnson.

Then there’s the fact that half of the 10 Chase tracks are 1.5-mile, intermediate ovals just like Kentucky. You get one guess on what type of track Keselowski’s wins this season have come at.

But perhaps the most important thing in Keselowski’s favor? Experience.

The Michigan native went from the highest of highs in 2012 to the lowest of lows in 2013. Last season, Keselowski could not find the consistency that had helped him become a champion, and it ultimately cost him a spot in the Chase.

There’s no doubt that this past winter had to be humbling for him and the No. 2 team. But it’s also made him more appreciative of being able to have nights like he had on Saturday.

It’s also made him hungry – perhaps as hungry as he’s ever been in NASCAR’s top level. He wants to prove to all of us that he will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

“I want to win another championship,” he said in post-race. “I don’t want to just win one. I think I have the team to do it, with Paul and the guys. I have the owner to do it with Roger Penske, and the urgency is now. I don’t want to win one championship and that be it for my career. I’m not going to be happy with that.

“And I want to win another championship, but I don’t want it to be five or ten years from now. I don’t want to be a guy that contends for a championship every three or four years, I want to do it each and every year, and I know that opportunity is here, and it’s present, and I want to make the most of it, and I’m not afraid to communicate that.”

As for the here and now, Keselowski knows it won’t be easy to overcome the Hendrick Motorsports armada. He and Penske teammate Joey Logano have been solid this year, but HMS is still regarded as the strongest team overall in the Cup garage.

Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, noted that it will take an all-around effort to beat them and everyone else.

“I think we look at our program as a whole and look at areas where we can be stronger, where we need to improve, and whether it’s with our aero department or our chassis or the guys working on the cars, the pit crews, we look at it all,” Wolfe said.

“To be able to win another championship, we’ll have to be very good in all those areas, and we’ll continue to evaluate and do what we need to do to be able to be good in all those areas.”

But one area where they’re not lacking is determination. Armed with a sharpened focus and a resolve to take back what was once theirs, Keselowski and his team are looking like a group that will be very dangerous when the Chase for a championship begins.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.