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CUP: Championship Caliber?

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Can Brad Keselowski give Roger Penske, who has won virtually everything else, the only major thing he doesn’t have – a Sprint Cup championship?

Indications in the wake of Sunday’s splendid performance by Keselowski in winning the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway lean toward “Yes”.

It’s a long way from here to there, of course, with many hurdles to cross and many potholes – figurative and literal, in this crazy season – to avoid, but Keselowski lifted his profile significantly Sunday with a smart and sassy victory on a day in which any of several other drivers could have emerged out front.

Penske, who has seen all of motorsports’ greatest drivers over the last half-century and who has employed more than a few of them, said Keselowski ran the “perfect race” – tall praise from a guy who probably would tell you he doesn’t see many of those.

Perhaps as important as the way Keselowski outsmarted Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch – two formidable opponents – to win Sunday is the fact that he now has two victories and practically has reserved a spot for himself in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He raced there last year and performed well, finishing fifth in points. But, at season’s end, Penske, a 15-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, a guy who has international standing in the world of auto racing, a winner of almost everything he has pursued, remained 0-for-forever in his search for a Sprint Cup title.

Even though Penske has employed top-notch drivers like Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch during his NASCAR years, Keselowski might be the one to take him across that last bridge.

“I want to be that first guy,” Keselowski said Sunday. “I feel like he's dedicated to making that happen. I look as some of the other elite car owners in the sport, and I don't want this to be offensive, but to win another Cup championship for [Rick] Hendrick or Richard Childress is not the same as winning the first for Roger Penske. That's a whole different accomplishment.

“I think he's certainly paid his dues in this sport. ... I want to be the guy that, you know, proves it in the record books.”

Penske called Keselowski a “world class driver” Sunday.

“When I look for a driver, I think the first thing we look at is does he know how to win races,” Penske said. “Brad obviously had that attribute when he came with us. … He sat down with me before he came to work with us and said, ‘What I'd really like to do, if I can, is come to Penske Racing and help you build a winning team.’ He could have raced for other people. He came with us.

“I saw a driver that could win, one that was committed to the team, not just himself, and he has been good with all our sponsors. …When you put that all together, I think, as I said earlier, I wouldn't trade him for anybody on the grid.”

Can he carry Penske all the way to the championship head table?

“Obviously, one of the goals in my life is to sit up on that stage in New York or Las Vegas, and I think he's the guy that can make it happen – this year, hopefully,” Penske said.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.