CONCORD, N.C. — Defending Sprint Cup series champion Brad Keselowski believes he's still the fastest in NASCAR, even if his results four months into the season don't bear that out.
Keselowski is winless and tied for sixth in points heading into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He opened the season with four straight top-four finishes and seven top 10s in the first eight races.
But since then he struggled to a 33rd-place finish at Richmond, 11th at Talladega and 32nd at Darlington.
Keselowski is left 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, drivers and teams still must execute and avoid wrecks. Those were keys last season in Keselowski's first title in NASCAR's top series.
"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.
And Keselowski won't have crew chief Paul Wolfe this weekend as he serves his two-race suspension for unapproved parts at Texas. Keselowski has also dealt with situations of his own making, like his Twitter rant criticizing eventual winner David Ragan's final restart position at Talladega — an opinion Keselowski later apologized for after learning that that was NASCAR's call.
Keselowski, 29, has also had car issues this season, but he is not discouraged or distracted.
"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.
"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 shared by some other drivers, but not 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."
Keselowski says he'll work to improve his track cred and leadership standing with additional victories and championships.
"But I'm smart enough to realize that I still have steps to go," he said.