|NAME: Brad Keselowski||CAR OWNER: Roger Penske|
|SPONSOR: Miller Lite||CREW CHIEF: Paul Wolfe|
|CAR #: 2||MANUFACTURER: Ford|
If Brad Keselowski proved anything en route to the 2012 Sprint Cup title, it was that history doesn’t always repeat itself. Exceeding expectations based on past performance at track after track in the Chase last fall, this talented driver realized his full potential. Heading into his fourth full season of Cup competition, Keselowski has proven he doesn’t fold under pressure; he simply focuses on what he needs to do to fix things.
That sounds simple, but it’s not a trait shared by everyone. Some drivers get frustrated with an ill-handling car, and if they don’t know what to do, they lapse into silence, or worse, a string of expletive-laden complaints. But Keselowski, like many of the sport’s most successful drivers, communicates with his crew and lets them work to make his car better. He thinks, as well as drives, to push every ounce of available speed out of a race car — driving on and sometimes just over the ragged edge.
Keselowski also races others the way they race him. He’s aggressive, yes, but don’t mistake that for dirty. He won’t give an inch, but he won’t carelessly wreck a competitor unless he thinks there’s good reason. The way he races others with respect is one key to Keselowski’s newfound success in NASCAR’s upper ranks.
Of course, there’s still an element of needed braggadocio that the driver carries with him, even as he continues to mature.
“I’m winning more,” he says when asked why former rivals have backed off criticism in recent years. “There’s a bit of swagger that comes with that, which others respect. Success breeds respect.”
The key to that success, something the driver realized fully in 2012, is a balanced team effort. Owner Roger Penske has more than 20 titles in various racing series, and “The Captain” is respected across motorsports for his dedication to the pursuit of perfection. He listens to employees because he knows that their insight is a valuable asset to his organization. After 2010, when Keselowski won the Nationwide Series title, Penske let the driver initiate organizational changes behind the scenes. Perhaps the best chess move? Pairing Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe in the Cup Series.
Keselowski now has two NASCAR championships with one common denominator. A former driver, Wolfe was known for coming to the track with equipment he had built himself. That technical know-how has revolutionized Penske chassis internally and helped jumpstart a second career for Wolfe. He often has not been given the credit he deserves for his role in Keselowski’s meteoric rise. Keselowski and Wolfe are the only driver-crew chief pair in NASCAR history to win titles in both series, and there are signs we’ve got a Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus pairing for the long haul.
For sponsor MillerCoors, 2012 was validation for its role as the longest-running primary backer in Sprint Cup. The company has been with Penske Racing since 1991, and 21 years later was rewarded with the sport’s biggest prize. Keselowski is the perfect fit to carry the relationship forward — he drank the product liberally after winning the championship, and his “regular guy” demeanor is the perfect appeal to its target demographic.
On paper, though, the bid for a second title is difficult. The Penske stable is switching to Ford for 2013 and will run with Roush Yates horsepower. Those engines, while high quality, are also new. A teammate switch in Joey Logano means the No. 22 car will go through its third transition in a matter of just 12 months. Will that hinder Keselowski? Oddsmakers seem to think so, leaving Jimmie Johnson the 2013 favorite — something that’s been used as motivation for the reigning champ.
“Every step of the way, I’ve had people who don’t believe in me,” he claims. “It’s been fuel for the fire. Now, it’s almost to a point where I relish it.”
Will he be relishing a second title when all is said and done? Possibly, but this team did overachieve slightly while the competition stumbled on its own late in 2012, and that’s not likely to happen twice. Keselowski’s two Chase wins came early, and he’ll be pressured more down the stretch a second time around. But underestimating his repeat title bid may be exactly the mental boost Mr. Keselowski is looking for.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Brad Keselowski’s quick ascension to Sprint Cup champion has made a believer out of all in the sport. In fact, he’s viewed by some as NASCAR’s newest “total package.”
“Obviously, he is a heck of a race car driver,” a rival crew chief says. “He is young, enthusiastic. He gets the whole process — the media and the racer side of it and that the aggressive style of racing is what people like to see. As an owner and a crew chief, that’s what you want. You want that aggressiveness and that hunger. He's got all of that ... and a boatload of talent. I've known him since he was a little kid, and I raced in ARCA against his granddad and his dad. I remember when he was running around the garage area as a child, so it’s really cool to see him excel and do well. I’m really proud of him.”
Another crew chief admires the 28-year-old for his fierce attitude, but notes that it’s not bragging if you can back it up:
“I don't know that this is a negative, but the aggressiveness rubs people wrong sometimes. It can come across as cocky and arrogant, but he can back it up. He says things that are viewed as controversial, but he always backs them up so there isn't much negative about that.”
Looking at Checkers: If he can avoid the Big One, he’s as smart at playing chess at Talladega as any driver on the track.
Pretty Solid Pick: Bristol, baby. He’s also developed into a nice little road racer.
Good Sleeper Pick: Defending Sprint Cup champions aren’t good sleeper picks. In fact, they’re not sleepers at all.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: After only three years, he’s failed to record a top 10 at just three tracks: Auto Club, Homestead and Vegas.
Insider Tip: Throw out any stats prior to Indianapolis 2011. That’s when Keselowski, Paul Wolfe, et al figured out this Cup thing. Since then, they’ve been able to contend at most any track — on most any given weekend.
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