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Marcos Ambrose gets out of his car in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen. (Brian Czobat/AP)
Marcos Ambrose gets out of his car in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen. (Brian Czobat/AP)

Motorsports

No wrecks, please: Epic last lap at The Glen showcases NASCAR’s new spirit Add to ...

Brad Keselowski’s description of the final lap in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race spoke volumes about his maturity as a racing driver.

“Just fun. We leaned on each other, we bumped each other – we were both cool about it and didn’t dump each other,” the No. 2 Penske Dodge driver said.

“This is what I think racing in NASCAR is supposed to be: hard-nosed, going for the win, bumping and rubbing without any of that intentional wrecking nonsense. Marcos [Ambrose] gets that. I enjoy racing with him.”

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Keselowski had just crossed the line second after the most intense and entertaining final lap in NASCAR’s 2012 season. The rising star battled with Kyle Busch and eventual winner Ambrose for the victory in Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355 at the Watkins Glen International road course, with all three banging fenders several times over the last dozen corners or so.

A day earlier, Keselowski was at it in the Nationwide race, finishing second to Carl Edwards in a hotly contested Zippo 200.

While he battled for the win on both days, he isn’t about to endorse having more road courses in the Cup Series.

In fact, he flatly dismissed the idea of adding a place like Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to the Cup calendar in place of an oval race.

“I enjoy the international market, I had a blast in Montreal, but I think that’s the wrong line of thinking,” he said.

“I think if you want to look back to obviously some of the peaks of our sport, where the racing was generally considered to be the best, it was on ovals. I think we need to simply correct some of the things that we need to make oval racing better. That’s obviously NASCAR’s way forward, I know they’re working on that, and I support that approach.”

Although his comments about road course events seem to go completely against the evidence tabled on the weekend at The Glen, Keselowski certainly can’t be faulted for his performance on track.

Simply put, his emergence as a title threat has not gone unnoticed.

The weekend at The Glen showed that Keselowski could race hard and aggressively but still stay clean, something it seems he has discovered in the past two seasons after his somewhat raucous first few years in the Sprint Cup Series.

When asked about the bumping and grinding in the final laps, Keselowski said it was all about giving your opponent respect while pushing as hard as possible to be in front.

“I think that’s the core of this sport, why people come to watch, because people know we’re going to give it our all on any given day. If a day comes when we don’t do that, we’re no longer racers, this is no longer a sport; it’s politics,” he said.

“That’s our job ... you don’t have to be an asshole about it. You can always find a reason to be that, but I don’t think anyone was [one] here today and it was all understandable.”

The difference in Keselowski’s aggressiveness over the past two seasons is remarkable, especially considering that he seemed destined to be the sport’s bad boy after several overly rough driving incidents early in his career.

Fans will likely recall the huge battles with Carl Edwards a few years ago where cars got wrecked and a couple even went airborne and ended up in the catch fencing, injuring spectators along the way.

His style had several veterans, including five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, voicing concerns about his attitude and over-aggressive driving.

But that all seems to be an ancient memory these days as Keselowski continues to show more and more maturity with every race.

So far this year, he has already equalled his three wins from last season and has eight top-five finishes in 22 starts. He has also improved his average finish three spots over last season, with his 2012 number at 11.7 compared to 14.8 in 2011. In his first full Cup season, Keselowski had no wins and no top-fives and an average finish of about 22nd.

With four races left before the 10-race Chase for the Cup begins, Keselowski is in a solid fifth place overall in points and a lock for a spot in the title showdown that decides the season champion.

In last season’s Chase, Keselowski ended his first appearance in the big show in fifth overall with four top-fives. Unfortunately, in the six other Chase starts he failed to crack the top 10 and finished 20th or worse three times.

This year’s Chase promises to be different, especially after Keselowski has found a way to win in a Dodge car that is likely not up to snuff and despite some serious distractions going on around him.

Last month, it was revealed that Keselowski’s teammate A. J. Allmendinger failed a random drug test and Penske announced early this year that it would switch to Ford cars in 2013. Last week, Dodge decided to pull out of NASCAR altogether.

And after a stellar weekend in New York, Keselowski seemed ready for the Chase to get going.

“You have to understand there’s a part of me that’s so thrilled to be competitive on a road course – I don’t want to say second is a win, but there’s just a large part of me that’s tickled to run that well because I’m not supposed to run well on road courses,” he said.

“The last year and a half we’ve been very strong. I’m just tickled to be with a team that gives me cars that can do that and to have shown whatever level of growth it has taken to get to this level as a driver.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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