If racing fans weren't convinced that Brad Keselowski was the real deal in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, Saturday evening's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol probably did the trick.
With another solid No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger in his arsenal, Keselowski parlayed brilliant late race pit strategy to win the 500-lapper at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It marked his third win of the 2011 season but more importantly, it put him in position to garner a coveted top-10 spot.
"An awesome car, an awesome team!” Keselowski exclaimed from Victory Lane per AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer's article. "Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt won this race. It’s a race of champions.
"There are races that pay more, that are races that might have a little more prestige, but this is the coolest damn one of them all.”
Just earlier this month at Indianapolis, Keselowski was 21st in points and just clinging on to a Chase seed via the wild card entry. Additionally, he broke his ankle in a grinding crash in a test session at Road Atlanta, seemingly making his Chase bid look bleak.
However, the Rochester Hills, MI native went on a tear this month, scoring a ninth at Indy, first at Pocono, second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan, and a win at Bristol.
Starting eighth in the field, Keselowski stayed in the top-10 virtually all evening long, lurking behind Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth before executing a smart two-tire pit stop prior to the final restart of the night.
Keselowski held on to the lead for the final 80 laps (leading 89 total) for the win, while Martin Truex Jr. and Gordon had a battle of their own for the runner-up position.
Gordon previously struggled at the "new" Bristol Motor Speedway, with only two-top finishes to his credit since the August 2007 refit. That was put to the wayside as the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy was at the front of the field for 206 laps, ultimately placing third.
His road to a podium finish wasn't simple as he contested with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who put on valiant efforts to maintain their positions.
Following the race, Gordon praised Keselowski's efforts, saying, "I don’t know what more to say about Brad and the (No. 2) team. 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."
Rounding out the top-10 finishers for the Irwin Tools Night Race were Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Marcos Ambrose.
For some Chase contenders positioned in the top-10 to the wild card slots, it wasn't exactly a night to remember.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed a 16th place effort but Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart came home with disappointing 26th and 28th place finishes respectively.
Combining their mediocre performances with the No. 2 car's torrid streak, Keselowski now finds himself just 21 markers from the top-10. That could be bad news for the rest of the competition when considering just how strong the second-year racer has been this year.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, who was looking to add a sixth Bristol trophy to his collection, had a somewhat off-night as he placed 14th.
Only leading four laps, the No. 18 Wrigley's Doublemint Toyota was a non-factor all evening long as he was mired in race-traffic with an ill-handling car.
Next Sunday night will be the penultimate regular season race for the Sprint Cup tour as drivers and teams prepare to do battle at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the AdvoCare 500 (Live at 7 PM on ESPN).
Tony Stewart hopes to duplicate his feat from last year if he looks to secure a Chase seed, while Brad Keselowski looks to punch his ticket for a top-10 seed.
Here's a look at the top-12 points standings (wild card drivers included), with drivers' team, manufacturer, and wins (if any) listed in parentheses:
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs/Toyota/4 wins)
- Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick/Chevy/1 win)
- Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway/Ford/2 wins)
- Carl Edwards (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
- Kevin Harvick (Childress/Chevy/3 wins)
- Jeff Gordon (Hendrick/Chevy/2 wins)
- Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/1 win)
- Kurt Busch (Penske/Dodge/1 win)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick/Chevy)
- Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas/Chevy)
- Brad Keselowski (Penske/Dodge/3 wins)
- Denny Hamlin (Gibbs/Toyota/1 win)