In this photo taken Friday Sept. 23, 2011, NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski is seen before qualifying for the Sylvania 300 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Two years ago, Keselowski was portrayed as an aggressive driver who didn't care who he ran over in his quest to make NASCAR's top level. Now, he's a championship contender and has had very few on-track scrapes. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The feud between Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin hit its breaking point two years ago at Dover, where an on-track altercation led to an off-track confrontation.
The battle raged on for the final two months of the season, and fans quickly decided if they were "Team Denny" or "Team Brad." Although they went tit-for-tat on the track, Hamlin continually won in the court of public opinion as he railed against Keselowski's impatience and lack of racing etiquette.
That seems so long ago now.
Keselowski returns to Dover this weekend as a bona fide title contender. He opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with consecutive top-five finishes to vault from 11th in the standings to third. Going into Round 3 of the Chase, he trails leader Tony Stewart by 11 points.
So what's changed?
"The way he drives," Hamlin said. "You can ask him and tell him I said so. I think he drives 100 percent better than what he used to. He used to have the all-out speed, but he was very anxious in traffic, and he's not like that now. I think he's matured 100 percent, and he's showing his talent now."
Hamlin always thought Keselowski was talented. Everybody did, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave Keselowski the flagship No. 88 at JR Motorsports midway through the 2007 season. The next year, his first full season in NASCAR, Keselowski won two races and finished third in the Nationwide Series standings.
Then came 2009, a breakout of sorts of Keselowski.
Contact with Carl Edwards on the final lap at Talladega nearly sent Edwards' car into the grandstands, and Keselowski sailed by for a stunning first Sprint Cup Series win. He racked up four Nationwide wins driving for Earnhardt, and had a development deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
But there's never any open seats with NASCAR's top Cup team, and Keselowski wanted to get to the top level. Unsure of what his future held, and anxious to get to Cup, Keselowski developed an aggressive and unapologetic reputation that rubbed some veteran drivers the wrong way.
"I think he was showing his talent in a different way in 2009, in a defiant way in that he had to go prove he was good," Hamlin said. "I think people got over that, and he realized he didn't need to do that to be successful. Now I think ... he's more relaxed, even though he's probably more confident in himself than ever."
But it wasn't easy for Keselowski.
Penske Racing offered him a Sprint Cup ride, and Keselowski had a decision to make. Sit around waiting for the day something might open at Hendrick, or move to a high-end organization that, despite its resources, has never won a title at NASCAR's top level.
He jumped at the challenge, and all parties involved have been better off since.
Keselowski got Penske to put more emphasis on the Nationwide program and rewarded the organization with six victories and last year's championship. That softened the blow of how badly he struggled at the Cup level -- just two top-10 finishes all year and a 25th-place finish in the final points standings.
He asked at the end of the year for Nationwide crew chief Paul Wolfe to be moved up to his Cup team, and Penske obliged. It took until May for the No. 2 team to see any results, but once they turned the corner, it's been a mad dash to the front.
Strangely, Keselowski's turnaround really heated up after he broke his ankle testing his Dodge in August. He won at Pocono four days after the accident, and followed it with a second-place finish at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan and then a win at Bristol. He's had just one finish outside the top-10 since the accident -- a 12th at Richmond. His climb from 25th in the standings after Charlotte has been nothing short of remarkable.
"He's just a racer, and his crew chief seems like he's a racer and they do their own thing and they don't get caught up in a lot of the tricks of the week of what's around them in the garage," said Kevin Harvick. "They stick to what works for them, and it is working for them. It will be interesting to see how it plays out eight weeks from now."
The trick now is to see if Keselowski can maintain his pace over the final eight weeks of the season. Some have noted that Keselowski's climb in Cup was linked to him skipping Nationwide races as he nursed his ankle. Keselowski, who won two weeks ago at Chicago in Nationwide, says no way.
"I don't think it's fair," he said. "Sometimes you have look at it in a bigger picture. I don't see where the two are connected. I see the bigger picture, which is why I came into the Nationwide Series with Penske to begin with -- the bigger picture of training people and giving opportunities to superstars in our sport ... the next tire changer, the next great mechanic or crew chief, whatever position that might be. I want to be a part of that training process.
"Maybe it's as simple as putting a part on the Nationwide car that we've been running on the Cup car and it breaks and we take it off before the Chase starts. There is just so may ways where it helps."
The next eight weeks will show what Keselowski's got. Then again, he's shown plenty over the last two years.