Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 11/6/14
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With Brad Keselowski’s convincing Kentucky win, the Penske Racing #2 Miller Lite Dodge (to be all victory lane-official about it) scored its third victory of the season and virtually guaranteed Keselowski a spot in the Chase. The breakthrough driver of 2011 now leads the Cup tour with three wins on the 2012 season.

On cue, the sports writing hemisphere immediately began cracking with debates about whether or not BK is the man to beat this year, if he's amongst the elite in the Cup series, etc. We can't resist asking the same type of question. Is Brad the man to beat in 2012?

That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.

Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.

Sam: The answer to this week’s question is fairly straightforward, at least in this writer's humble opinion. In straight-forward terms, Keselowski is a hair's breadth away from being a true, top contender for the 2012 title.

He's well on his way to completing the process of showing total legitimacy as a consistent Cup series front-runner. Last year's summer victory blitz and subsequent stellar Chase run (hampered by ill luck) are proving to be no fluke. The man can win on short tracks, superspeedways, and bread-and-butter 1.5 mile venues, and he's shown early signs of life at road-racing prowess (Watkins Glen, 2011). The patented signs of elite skill are present in spades, the only ingredient left being consistency in performance over the next several years.  

That said, the young lion that is Brad Keselowski still stumbles a bit in the area that most often bites young predators. That is, consistency. Brad indeed has three wins on the year, but he also is barely in the top-10 in points with about as many mediocre finishes as top-10's runs. That's nothing to worry about, as such inconsistency is common at this stage in a career bound for great success. It's also simply indicative of the current state of NASCAR racing: so many things can go wrong in a modern-day NASCAR race, and the level of competition is so high, that it's simply hard to finish in the top-10 more than 50 or 60 percent of the time.  

To answer the question, Brad Keselowski is indeed one of the top contenders for the 2012 title. Tony Stewart showed last year that with a bunch of wins at exactly the right time of the  year, it doesn't matter at all what the first 26 races of the year looked like in regards to consistency. That said, is Keselowski the top contender this year? Beyond the implacable smoothness of your Jimmie Johnson's, Matt Kenseth's, and Dale Junior's, not yet. 

Bad Brad gets a yellow flag of caution if you're trying to peg team number two as team number one for 2012. But keep your Chase eyes peeled—he's a predator on the prowl.

Luke: Just over a year ago, NASCAR fans and pundits alike were wondering whether Brad Keselowski made a career mistake by moving to a Cup ride at Penske Racing rather than biding his time at JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and waiting for a seat to open up at Hendrick Motorsports.

Needless to say, one Chase berth, top-5 points finish and six wins later, those questions have been silenced. And if the 2012 Chase started today, Keselowski would be sitting atop the standings for the first time in his young career. He’s a threat to win on a weekly basis and at any type of track, be it road course, short track, intermediate track or restrictor plate track.

But as talented and accomplished as is the driver of the Blue Deuce, Keselowski has an Achilles Heel when it comes to claiming true championship frontrunner status. A quick glance at the standings shows that the No. 2 is in just 10th place. The reason is a lack of consistency. Sure, the man can run up front consistently and bag wins with regularity. But at this point, I’d take Dale Jr. with his lone win in the past four years—but series-leading top-10 total—over Keselowski in a championship battle.

Of course, Keselowski could go on a Tony Stewart-like tear in the Chase and bludgeon the competition into submission with win after win. He’s fully capable of going on such a run. However, it’s far from likely, and I’m not going to peg Keselowski as the lead dog in the race for the Sprint Cup championship on hopes of replicating what hadn’t been done by any driver prior to the three-time champ’s incredible performance last season.

If Keselowski can put together a string of top-10’s as we head down the stretch toward the Chase and move up a few positions in the points, check back and I might revise my current way of thinking.

But for now, Mr. Keselowski receives a red flag for being the man to beat in 2012.

Final analysis: It’s a striped yellow and red flag for putting Keselowski at the head of the 2012 Chase pack. A solid championship contender, to be sure, but he’s not quite at the top of the totem pole just yet.

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