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Keselowski taking long road toward respect in NASCAR
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Brad Keselowski, left, talks with a crew member as he removes his helmet after a practice session, Friday, Feb. 13, in Daytona Beach, Fla. - photo by Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski might as well sign up as the next celebrity target at a comedy roast.

His fellow NASCAR drivers already have plenty of practice hurling cutting barbs his way — just minus the rim shot.

Denny Hamlin on Keselowski's rep: "Nobody wants to be Brad."

Kyle Busch on who young drivers should emulate: "Don't come in like Brad."

For each blunt opinion Keselowski has about the state of NASCAR, drivers seem to have two or three zingers ready to fire right back at Bad Brad. Not even winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship earned Keselowski his proper place at the big boys' table. He's yet to earn as much respect in the garage as former champs Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

Heck, Keselowski even took the rap for costing Gordon a shot at a fifth title when they tangled in an accident on a late restart at Texas.

Keselowski has accepted the black hat, better to stir reaction with an outspoken opinion or two than build a career as an irrelevant driver.

If he's failed to gain many best friends in the sport, it's a small price to pay for having the type of passion that energizes him to be among NASCAR's best drivers.

"I know that when I have had whatever run-ins I have had throughout my career, I have had them because I have done the things that I feel like I need to do to be the best, and that is why I am in this sport," Keselowski said. "That is what drives me."

Among his most outspoken moments:

—A rant against NASCAR's move to electronic fuel injection, which led to a $25,000 fine.

—A diatribe about other teams poaching team owner Roger Penske employees. Penske later said "Brad had some misinformation" after rival team owner Rick Hendrick blasted the driver's claims.

—A strong stance against NASCAR's requirement that all drivers undergo baseline concussion testing.

"Some of the stuff he says, all of us shrug our shoulders, close our eyes and are like, 'I wouldn't have said that,'" 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray said. "But there is normally a little bit of truth in it, as well. He obviously likes attention or he wouldn't say things like that."

Even Keselowski's detractors can't deny his talent. He's coming off a career-best six wins with 17 top-fives driving the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske.

"I feel like I am a top-three driver in the Sprint Cup series," Keselowski said.

He mentioned reigning series champion Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards as the other two drivers in the gold-silver-bronze class.

Keselowski and Edwards feuded for a couple of seasons after they took turns wrecking each other in a March 2010 race at Atlanta. But as one feud faded, another emerged.

Gordon was in position at Texas for an automatic spot in the championship round, racing for the lead on a late restart. His chances ended when Keselowski squeezed between him and Johnson, creating contact that sent Gordon spinning into the wall with a flat tire.

Gordon finished 29th and confronted Keselowski in the pits, leading to a melee between their teams. Gordon seethed because he already knew what the rest of the sport would learn months later — he was ready to call it quits and a sure victory that would have guaranteed him a spot in the finale was gone.

It was one of the rare times Keselowski took personal offense to criticism.

"What bothered me the most were people that felt I cost Jeff a championship last year because I didn't feel that way at all," Keselowski said. "I felt like those were people that got caught up in the rhetoric and were just trying to use a line to get readers or clicks or viewers or whatever it is. That bothered me a little bit. I didn't lose sleep over it, though."

Gordon has mellowed, saying a pit road speeding penalty at Martinsville was more to blame for missing the championship round than Keselowski's accident.

"That was just racing hard," Gordon said. "I don't think he really did anything wrong. It's just the outcome was bad because I got a flat tire and it cost me making it into the final race. I'm just going to race the heck out of him and whatever happens, happens."

Keselowski sent a congratulatory olive branch via text when Gordon announced 2015 was his last full season. He said Gordon did not respond.

Gordon is nearly finished, and with Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and other veterans inching closer toward retirement, Keselowski could earn a greater voice and use his position as a NASCAR champion to grow into an industry leader.

"When you are the champion like he was and win races like he does, you have a voice," two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip said. "Your voice gets listened to and played a lot, and that makes you think you're even more important."

The 31-year-old Keselowski has a date with fatherhood, though he doesn't expect the arrival of a baby girl sometime around the All-Star race to dim his competitive fire — or muzzle his mouth.

Love him or boo him, Kez won't change his ways.

"I feel like the sport is coming to me," he said.