NASCAR’s New Kid on the Block

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Brad Keselowski Emerges As A Title Contender

Brad Keselowski Photo by LAT Photographic

Let the record note that Brad Keselowski was already poised for greatness. No one ever arrived in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series with a greater understanding of what it’s like in the constant glare of media scrutiny.

Keselowski, 27, is a natural, and as it turns out, it’s pretty much the same story on the track. As the Chase for the Sprint Cup neared, he rocketed into championship contention with the hottest streak of any driver during the season to date. In a five race span that ended at press time, he finished ninth at Indianapolis, first at Pocono, second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan and first again at Bristol. By so doing, he improved from 23rd to 11th in the standings and convinced many that he had the potential to do what almost no one would have seriously considered a month earlier.

He could win the championship. It’s a long shot. But it could happen.

Keselowski in action in 2011. Photo by LAT Photographic“To be a championship contender, we need to make that next step,” Keselowski conceded. “We’ve made a step forward. … I think that you can see it with our team, obviously. You can see that Penske Racing has what I feel is two equally competitive teams.”

Keselowski’s teammate, Kurt Busch, is also in the Chase field of 12, but Keselowski has emerged from relative obscurity. Busch, who won what was then the Nextel Cup championship in 2004, is a proven commodity.

The Irwin Night Race, at Bristol Motor Speedway on the night of Aug. 27, marked Keselowski’s third victory of the season. The first was at Kansas Speedway on June 5.

“I don’t know, but I wish I could bottle it up and save a little bit,” Keselowski quipped.

Keselowski, once a protégé of Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the Nationwide Series title in 2010, but his Sprint Cup fortunes weren’t particularly impressive in his first full season at Penske Racing. Driving for one of the sport’s prestigious teams, Keselowski finished 25th in the standings and never had a top-five finish. As 2011 beckoned, Keselowski’s one Cup victory, a controversial one at Talladega in his fifth career start on April 26, 2009, was starting to seem like some kind of anomaly. The Kansas victory, in the current season’s 13th race, gave Keselowski hope of making the Chase as one of two new “wild cards,” but at the time it seemed as if even making the top 20 by regular season’s end, a stipulation for the final two slots, would be a challenge.

Keselowski in action at Bristol. Photo by LAT PhotographicIn fact, Keselowski left Kansas 21st in points and had slid another two positions heading into the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis on July 31.

At which point, everything changed.

“It’s weird,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, “because it’s not really doing anything different.

“It’s been a lot of small things over the last couple of months, just starting to add up. We’ve got fast race cars. The driver is doing his part. The pit crew is doing its part, and we’re making good calls on pit road and adjustments.”

Keselowski spun the same tale.

“I don’t see where I’m doing anything a lot differently, I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t see where my team is doing anything a lot differently. I think we have good speed. I think Jimmie (Johnson) or anyone else in the garage would tell you that speed is the foundation of a good team. I think that good speed is what you need.”

As such, Keselowski sped through August at a clip that produced two victories, a second and a third. The streak ran the gamut of tracks – massive, flat Pocono; the Watkins Glen road course; intermediate Michigan; and short-track Bristol – and blunted every possible note of pessimism. For a month, Keselowski and his team were the unquestioned best in the sport.

Keselowski and Wolfe. Photo by LAT Photographic“For our team, probably the biggest thing I could say is there’s certainly some confidence and snowballing going on,” Keselowski said. “One good run breeds another good run.

“I’m not sure how to quantify that, how or why. I think I’m probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it, but it’s been amazing. It’s been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team.

“Well, I mean, obviously there’s been some growth within the company at Penske Racing. I kind of walk a line there with how I say that because we’ve made a step forward, which is great to do and has created the results we’ve seen over the last few weeks, but I think we need to make another step forward. That’s a big, big goal, a lofty goal.”

A championship goal.

As much as any driver in recent memory, Keselowski was ready for his star to rise. As an interview subject, he is both thoughtful and witty. In part, it’s because he is a product of three racing generations in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Neither his father Bob, nor his uncle, Ron ever climbed to the top ranks of NASCAR.

The relationship between many drivers and the media is at least a bit contentious. Some insist that they don’t read stories written about them and their teams. They consider it a distraction.

Keselowski seems to find it enjoyable. Not only does he read most everything written about him; he admits it. He is active on Twitter, where he somehow manages to put his personality on display at a rate of 140 characters at a time.

All the clichés used to forecast other sports are trotted out in NASCAR. It’s said that a driver has to “lose a championship before he can win one” and that inexperience leads invariably to pressure during the 10-race Chase.

While Keselowski evinces suitable humility, he also discusses readily the challenge of unseating Johnson, winner of a record five consecutive Cup championships.

Jimmie Johnson Photo by LAT Photographic“I don’t think I’ll be hearing any voices,” he said. “The voices that I heard early in my career were, ‘You’re never going to make it.’ Everything from here on out, you know, is ‘peaches.’ It’s good.”

“The biggest thing I can say about Jimmie is that, you know, I’m sure a lot of people in the garage would say his last championship was the most impressive. Up until, maybe, last year, I think a lot of people would tell you that Jimmie had the fastest car. I don’t think that was the case last year, and he was still able to get it done. When you look at it in that way, it’s usually a good indicator if you have the fastest car through the Chase that you have the highest odds, the best opportunity to win the championship.

“The foundation starts within your own team. I think that’s what’s so encouraging …”

The likelihood, of course, is that the Chase isn’t going to come down to some kind of romantic suspense tale involving Keselowski as the rags-to-riches upstart and Johnson as the established veteran. For one thing, the two are at opposite edges of their respective primes –

Johnson, nearly a decade older than Keselowski, turned 36 on Sept. 17.

Kyle Busch Photo by LAT PhotographicFor another, the season has no shortage of contenders. Kyle Busch, who has been notably incapable of prospering in past Chases, emerged during the summer as a more likely successor to Johnson (if, of course, Johnson is to be succeeded this year). Even as Keselowski ascended to 11th in the points and nailed down a wild-card slot, Busch and Johnson were dead even at the top of the standings.

But Johnson doesn’t discount Keselowski. He merely recites the standard cautionary line.

“When you go through and look at the guys you’re racing against, I think drivers that have won championships at a high level, you have to take and see them first,” Johnson opined. “Guys who have won Cup championships (Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch) are the ones you consider first, but it doesn’t mean that a (less established driver) doesn’t have a chance. It’s not excluding that.”

“The Chase does something to everyone, the pressure that’s put on the drivers, watching your life’s work come down to a 10 race period of time. It does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. Brad and what he did last year in winning the (Nationwide Series) championship, he’ll fall on that. He’ll fall on the shoulders of Penske Racing, his guys, whom he’s around. We’ll just have to see how everybody responds to pressure when it really kicks up.”

Johnson and Keselowski Photo by LAT PhotographicTo be around the gregarious, wisecracking Keselowski is to believe that maybe, just maybe, he does have a legitimate chance. He hasn’t just shown he can talk the talk. He’s proved his toughness.

In a crash while practicing at Road Atlanta, Keselowski suffered a fractured left ankle that he expects to hinder him for the rest of the year. It’s been hard to describe it as a hindrance, though. While limping around the garage, he raced around the tracks, finishing first, second, third and first again in his next four races.

Some drivers have probably been exploring the cosmic benefits of physical maladies. After all, Denny Hamlin nearly unseated Johnson a year ago while compensating for a bum knee.

Keselowski laughs it off…a little.

At Bristol, he said, “The last 100 laps, I was certainly starting to feel it. But, you know, I don’t think anybody wants to hear me whine. Every once in a while, I do, and they tell me just to shut up, anyway, and it hasn’t been very productive.”

In the Chase, Keselowski vowed not to back off. When asked the inevitable question regarding the need to be consistent as opposed to the importance of chalking up wins, he threw his own question back in return: “Well, hell, why not just go for both? I’d like to consistently win. That’s what the sport is all about, right?

Keselowski in the pits at Bristol Photo by LAT Photographic“This sport, in its simplest form, is just about winning. Why make it any more complicated than that? If you’ve got cars to win, go out there and win. If you don’t, get the best finish you can. You’ll have great weeks like we’re having here if you’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great team. I don’t think we’re overthinking it.”

Keselowski can talk. He’s tough, and he can drive. He seems oblivious to pressure, if for no other reason than because he has nothing to lose. No one really expects him to pull this off against Johnson and 10 others more experienced than he.

No one in recent memory has arrived at this lofty height and breathed its rarefied air better than Keselowski. He is exquisitely prepared because he is where he always wanted to be. He knew exactly what to expect.

Keselowski adroitly blends the brashness of a young man in a hurry with the humility of one aware of how wildly his fortunes have turned.

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