The established NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title favourites believe Brad Keselowski is a potential threat in the Chase, following his impressive runs of late which have made him the leading wildcard entry set to join the play-off.
Keselowski ranks 14th in the points with just four races left to set the Chase field heading into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Michigan, having moved up from 23rd in the standings in the last three weeks by finishing ninth, first and second at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Watkins Glen respectively. He is one of only two drivers to finish in the top 10 in all three events along with points leader Kyle Busch.
When asked to suggest a driver he thought could surprise during the Chase, Busch said: "I think we've seen that here the last couple weeks and that's the #2 [Keselowski] car," said Busch. "He came out of nowhere, winning that race at Pocono and surprising us all and getting two wins on the year and now getting himself as a wildcard berth and then backing it up with a strong run this past week.
"He's certainly had some flashes of brilliance this year where he's run well. If he comes out here and runs well again this weekend, he's going to be a guy that's probably going to be on everybody's mind."
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who was testing alongside Keselowski when the Penske driver had his major crash at Road Atlanta, says that although the past few weeks have placed his rival in the spotlight, Penske's upswing had already been evident for a few months.
"I can't say that it is due to just those two events, I mean those two races [Pocono and Watkins Glen] definitely [contributed]... and being there at the test session and watching what he went through and the pain he was experiencing getting out of the car; there are different areas I have more respect in," said Johnson.
He added: "My perspective for Brad has been more of over the course of the year rather than just the last two races. Those last two races didn't hurt by any means, but, you can't argue with the success they have started since late spring and early summer and they've been rolling."
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon says Keselowski has simply confirmed the potential he had already shown in the past but admitted to having more respect for him now after seeing him driving through the pain for the last two weeks on his way to strong finishes.
"I look at him just earlier this year and it seemed like he wasn't even on the radar," said Gordon. "I think Penske deserves a lot of credit and whether Brad and Kurt [Busch] play a big role in that as drivers is important. You can only make your teams better when you're getting good information. You have to give credit to the drivers, but they've definitely gone to work.
"I think what makes the Pocono win and his performance even last week so impressive is because of what happened at Road Atlanta. I think I've always felt like Brad's a really good racecar driver. He's proven that in the Nationwide Series. He's had some success in the Cup Series and now you look at Brad and you go, 'Okay, their performance is better.' He's a lot tougher than I thought he was.
"He told me prior to the [Watkins Glen] race [on] Monday, but he told me this I think on qualifying day. He said, 'I don't think I'm going to make it through this weekend, it's really hurting.' I don't know if that extra [rain delay] day helped him or what, but he made it through and he was really strong.
"I think Brad is really being recognised now as a driver that we all thought he was when he came into the Cup Series because of his Nationwide performance and now he's backing that up."
Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, last year's championship runner-up, believes that although Keselowski may well be on a hot streak it will be tough for him to be able to maintain it through a 10-week stretch into the Chase, although he too expects him to be a contender.
"There's a lot of guys that go on streaks for a couple weeks," said Hamlin. "To maintain it for 10 weeks is so, so difficult. Obviously the big jump in points he's had over the last few weeks, he's solidified himself pretty much as a Chase competitor with those two wins. I look at him just as tough as the other 11 guys if we're in, we're going to have to race."
For his part Keselowski is not letting himself get carried away and places his focus on winning a third race before the Chase, one that would lock him in the play-off and that could potentially place him as the top seed along Kyle Busch and Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick, both three-time winners this season thus far.
Keselowski still needs to remain in the top 20 in the points in order to be eligible as a wildcard entry into the Chase with his current tally of wins.
"We got a lot of good things going, obviously leading the wildcard standings, but certainly don't take that for granted," says Keselowski. "That could go away if we don't keep performing. Last week was a big week for us, getting us up solidly in the top 20 and little bit of breathing room on 21st, so we can make sure and utilise the two wins. That was big for us.
"But we've still got a lot of racing left, four races left till the Chase starts. I really would just like to go out and win another race and wouldn't have to worry about it at all. I think that's where our focus is."
For more on Keselowski's surge read last week's feature on AUTOSPORT PLUS.