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Keselowski matures into force as Sprint Cup season winds down

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 1:03 a.m.
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Brad Keselowski (22) leads Kasey Kahne (38) and Sam Hornish Jr. during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Great Clips 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 10, 2012, in Avondale, Ariz. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

AVONDALE, Ariz. — It would have been easy for Brad Keselowski to wreck Jimmie Johnson at the end of last week's race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Keselowski would have won the race, surged ahead of Johnson in their championship battle and maybe even put enough separation on him to win his first career Sprint Cup title.

But Keselowski said he wouldn't have felt good about winning that way. So he raced Johnson hard — but clean — on the final restart at Texas and wound up finishing second.

Johnson went on to his second consecutive victory and took a seven-point lead over Keselowski into Sunday's race at Phoenix, the penultimate event in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

So why didn't Keselowski go for broke?

“Jimmie has never done anything to me to deserve to be raced in that manner,” he said. “When I race people the way I race them, I race them off of a code that you know usually exists off how they've started racing me.

“He never did anything to deserve to be wrecked, that's for sure. I'm not in the habit of just wrecking people just to wreck ‘em. Now obviously if somebody does something to push me around, that's a little different.”

His record speaks for itself, and Phoenix was the site of Keselowski's first meeting with NASCAR chairman Brian France during his 2009 feud with Denny Hamlin.

Keselowski had staked a reputation as an aggressive driver who was unapologetic for anything he had to do on the track to be successful. He would not back down to anyone, and he had no interest in hearing any sort of lectures about etiquette or respect for veterans.

It was all unfolding in the second-tier Nationwide Series, where Hamlin was moonlighting and could get away with trying to teach a young driver a lesson. It boiled over at Phoenix, where Keselowski twice hit Hamlin's car in retaliation to wreck him.

Hamlin later complained trying to discuss anything with Keselowski was like “talking to the concrete.”

Keselowski was summoned to meet before the Cup race the next morning to a 20-minute meeting with France and other NASCAR officials.

Now, three years later, he's in the thick of a championship race, and Hamlin himself sees a changed driver.

“He's better. He'll tell you he's better now and, obviously, it's leading to a lot of success,” Hamlin said. “I think that Brad (Keselowski) is one of the best racers out there at this point. Not only from the speed that he has, but the ethics in which he races. He's a great guy to race with. Really to me, there's no resemblance from the Brad before to the Brad now.”

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