CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Glued to Carl Edwards' bumper as they raced for the lead around Talladega Superspeedway, young Brad Keselowski showed no signs of letting off the gas pedal. He peeked high, and Edwards cut him off, then ducked low to try to pass.
Edwards, the veteran, quickly swerved down to block the pass, a move that guaranteed disaster if Keselowski didn't back off. In the blink of an eye, Keselowski found himself in high-stakes game of chicken at speeds approaching 200 mph.
The rookie refused to blink.
He didn't give an inch. Nothing slowed Keselowski that day last April, not even after the inevitable contact sent Edwards' car sailing into the safety fence in a frightening accident that injured seven fans.
Keselowski just barreled on, stealing an improbable victory in just his fifth career start in NASCAR's prestigious Sprint Cup Series.
Looking back now at those intense two minutes, Keselowski was clearly sending a message to his established, experienced competitors: he won't back down to anyone, ever. That mentality has rankled a long list of top-name drivers, and finally came to the fore last weekend in Atlanta when Edwards, exasperated over a long list of hard racing between the two, intentionally wrecked Keselowski in contact that sent Keselowski airborne in a scene quite similar to the one in Talladega.
For all the public outrage over Edwards' deliberate act, there was an equal amount of private sentiment that Keselowski had it coming.
Keselowski is well aware of the whispers, but remains unapologetic for anything he's done that's gotten him to his prime-time Cup ride with auto racing icon Roger Penske.
"It's not possible to get a Cup ride right now without being aggressive, and without having some swagger in your step," Keselowski said. "Does that make you a jerk? To some people, yes. To some people, no. It depends on where you're coming from. If you look at the sport right now, there are no new drivers coming in.
"So whatever I'm doing is working, and it's gotten me to where I'm at."
The son of 1989 ARCA champion Bob Keselowski grew up in Rochester Hills, Mich., and entered NASCAR Truck races from 2004 through 2006 with his father's backing. He picked up a couple Nationwide Series starts for an underfunded team in 2006 and early 2007, before his big break came midway through that season when Dale Earnhardt Jr. plucked him from obscurity to drive his flagship No. 88 for JR Motorsports.
That, says three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, was the game-changer for Keselowski.
"Driving for Dale Jr. gave him privileges that he wouldn't have had if had driven for someone else," Waltrip said. "That Earnhardt connection allowed him to become 'Bad Brad.' Those few years gave him time to create this character that he's Bad Brad. Well, if you are Bad Brad, you are going to make some people mad."
Finally in good equipment, Keselowski bulldozed his way to six Nationwide wins over two-plus seasons with a hard-driving style that impressed car owners but annoyed rival competitors.
"He's very openly outspoken and cocky about what his intentions are," said Fox analyst Larry McReynolds. "He has no problem racing people hard, and if they don't like it, then they are going to have a problem. The thing to remember, though, is most of these drivers are complaining about Brad racing them hard. You've got to be kidding me! You are supposed to be racing hard.
"The greats — Dale Earnhardt, Pearson, Petty, Allison — those sons of a guns ran hard from the green flag to the checkered flag and that's exactly what Brad is doing."
Those running bumper-to-bumper with him each week disagree. There's a finesse required in racing, a certain give-and-take that earns you both respect and the on-track friends a driver needs to be successful.
Keselowski, most believe, doesn't have it. At least not when it comes to racing against Cup drivers.
He did it full time for two years in the Nationwide Series, refusing to back down when the likes of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Edwards and Clint Bowyer moonlighted in that series and stole the headlines from the guys like Keselowski who were just trying to get noticed.
Hamlin became the first driver to publicly vow to retaliate. At wits end late last season after a monthslong feud with Keselowski over his driving style, Hamlin promised payback in the Nationwide Series finale. He made good on his word with an early spin at Homestead, and received a standing ovation from crews along pit road when he passed by to serve a rough driving penalty.
Behind the scenes, drivers figured Keselowski would see more and more of that retaliation this season as he moved into a full-time Cup ride with Penske.
Jeff Burton, one of the most respected and cleanest drivers in the garage, understands the disdain for Keselowski's tactics.
"Brad has got to learn that he doesn't need to prove to the world that he's a tough guy," Burton said this week. "He's made the decision that he's not going to cut anybody any slack. He's made the decision that he's going to race aggressively all the time. Those are the decisions he's made, and he's going to have to live with the consequences of that.
"There' nothing wrong with giving a little bit, and there's nothing wrong with taking a little bit. But if you're going to only take, then you're going to come out of the short end of the stick more times than not."
And that's where Keselowski currently finds himself. Cup drivers aren't cutting him any slack, and his transition to the big leagues hasn't been all that smooth. He heads into next weekend's race at Bristol ranked 33rd in the standings and in serious danger of falling below the important top-35 mark that guarantees him a spot in the field.
Although his ardent fan base — inherited largely by driving for Earnhardt — insists he's gotten a bad rap and hold him up as an example of the closest thing to their former idols: a hard-nosed racer who doesn't care what anyone thinks about him.
Waltrip, who made his share of enemies during a 29-year career, isn't sure how long that's going to work for Keselowski.
"He's said, 'I don't care what the other competitors think about me,' and he's going to learn that puts you out on an island," Waltrip said. "You can't survive in this sport out on an island. People will get tired of you and your attitude and they will turn you over. They will turn you over every week."
For his part, Keselowski says to bring it on, even after his upside-down tumble courtesy of Edwards.
It doesn't matter what anyone does to him, he said, he's not planning to change a thing.
"That's probably the best revenge there is — to not let it get to me one bit, to not change," Keselowski said. "That's a sign to (Edwards) and everyone else that that's not going to work on me.
"I feel lucky to be in race cars that are as safe as they are, to be able to be here talking today and to be able to say, 'Hey, I'll take the lick and I'll get out of the car and come back the next race weekend and drive just as hard,' just to prove a point that I wasn't wrong and I still don't feel like I'm wrong."