Defending series champion Brad Keselowski believes he's still the fastest in Sprint Cup, even if his results four months into the season don't bear that out.
Keselowski is winless and seventh in points heading into the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night. He opened the season with four straight top-four finishes and seven top 10s in the first eight races.
Recently, he's struggled to stay near the top with a 33rd -place finish at Richmond, an 11th at Talladega and a 32nd at Darlington.
It's left Keselowski shaking his head because he knows the speed for the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford is as strong as ever.
"If there were a right-side seat and you rode with me through the last two or three mile-and-half (tracks), you'd go, `Damn, we're the fastest car here,'" Keselowski said. "Unfortunately, we haven't produced those results and that's on us to get right."
While Keselowski knows speed is the foundation for success, you still must execute on the race track and have that lucky streak that keeps you from getting caught up in wrecks. The team had that in abundance last season to win Keselowski's first title.
"We haven't put two or three together to really build the house that it takes to win," he said. "I feel like this weekend, along with any other weekend, could be that chance and that opportunity."
Keselowski's chances didn't get the strongest start at Charlotte. He qualified 20th fastest for NASCAR's longest event -- nearly 4 mph behind pole-sitter Denny Hamlin -- and will start outside the top 10 for the sixth straight race.
It's not the sort of follow-up season Keselowski envisioned. He won't have crew chief Paul Wolfe this weekend as he serves his two-race suspension for unapproved parts at the race in Texas. Keselowski has also dealt with situations of his own making, like his Twitter rant criticizing David Ragan's final restart position at Talladega -- an opinion Keselowski later apologized for after learning that NASCAR told Ragan to switch positions.
Ragan was victorious at Talladega.
"Look, I'm not perfect. I know that and I don't pretend to be," the 29-year-old Keselowski said.
Keselowski has also had car issues this season, including a broken drive shaft at last week's All-Star Race.
Still, Keselowski isn't discouraged or distracted from following the path that will get him where he wants to be -- a leader in the standings and in the NASCAR garage.
"It's hard to really say I'm happy with where I'm at because I'm not, but I'm not unhappy either," he said. "Winning a championship is a step to have that opportunity to become a leader, but there are several other steps."
Ryan Newman doesn't believe a championship makes you a leader. Newman cited Mark Martin as an example of a driver who has the respect of his peers yet has not collected a Sprint Cup title during his time.
"A leader is somebody you look up to," Newman said. "It all depends on your position. If you look up to somebody like that, then yeah, he is your leader. But if you don't, then somebody else is."
Does Newman look up to Keselowski?
"Only when I'm standing next to him," he wisecracked.
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, said Keselowski has his own ideas that are shared by some other drivers, but not by all. "I think that's a good thing. I think that's what makes Brad Brad," Kenseth said. "I think everybody is different in this sport and different personalities are important and good."
Perhaps Keselowski's drive comes from how long it took him to arrive in NASCAR's top series. He didn't drive in the Nationwide Series until 2008 and was its champion two years later. He was 25 when he won his first Sprint Cup race in Talladega and did not get his first fulltime Sprint Cup ride until joining the Penske organization in 2010. He broke through last year with a career-best five victories and 23 top 10s.
Keselowski won't let this season's disappointments keep him from chasing down his ultimate goals. "I'm the type of guy that reaches sometimes a little further than what I have for length in my arms," he said with smile.
Keselowski says he'll work to improve his track cred and leadership standing in the garage with additional victories and championships.
"But I'm smart enough to realize that I still have steps to go," he said.