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While the Chase sublots were accumulating, Keselowski was adding to an extraordinary year. In three of his first seven starts, he finished near the bottom. He also had not cracked the top 10 in his four previous starts before coming to Kentucky.

Keselowski conceded that his team had “reliability issues” early in the year.

But he has had his Penske Dodge in contention in almost all the rest of the 17 races so far. With just nine races left before the Chase, the 28-year-old Michigan native is just confident enough to believe he can create even more havoc.

“The only thing that means anything is who’s in the top 10 and who has the most wins when the Chase gets going,” he said. “That is the only thing that matters.”

Crew chief Paul Wolfe pulled a Houdini move during Friday’s practice. Keselowski collided with Juan Pablo Montoya on the very first lap of warmups, wrecking his best car. Wolfe and his crew grabbed last year’s car and, in an hour’s time in 100-degree heat, transformed it into the vehicle that dominated the final 60 laps.

“Any time people think we’re down and out, (we seem) to be able to get up to another level,” Wolfe said.

While everybody else, it seems, is anxiously glancing at the remaining races and counting in their heads what they need to do to get into or remain in contention for the big money at the end of the season, the easy-going Keselowski continues to be oblivious to the pressure.

“I’m looking forward,” he said. “Not looking back. If you’re worried about being 10th in points, then you’re looking back.”

He’s not the only driver with designs on stealing the biggest prize.

Earnhardt hadn’t won a race in 143 starts dating to 2008 before winning at Michigan two weeks ago. After placing fourth at Kentucky, he said he’s not so willing to wait for another trip to Victory Lane.

“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said, laughing.