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Past failures drive Keselowski to future successes

November 14, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Past failures drive Keselowski to future successes

To understand the mindset now, one needs to acknowledge the path taken to get to this point.

Then and only then does it become possible to grasp the calm with which Brad Keselowski seems engulfed as he closes in on the first of what he hopes are many Sprint Cup championships. There is one step left this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Keselowski needs only to avert disaster in his No. 2 Dodge to complete an ascendency to motorsports royalty that has been both stunningly rapid in one sense and painfully slow in another.

You see, Keselowski is one of those nearly overnight sensations that was years in the making. Not long before he was on the verge of becoming a Cup champion, his racing excesses without the requisite number of successes led his own family to the brink of bankruptcy.

Keselowski said he still remembers the day in 2006 when his father, Bob, was forced to sell off assets of the family racing business, K Automotive Racing, to make ends meet. Keselowski says the memory of that day has fueled the steely resolve he has displayed throughout his run to this championship a mere six years later.

"Being a part of the family's business in racing and watching it fail? That's as low as it gets," Keselowski says. "Watching them have to sell all of their assets and not even be able to get to the race track, that's as low as it gets.

"To think I was a part of bankrupting my family to try to pursue my own dream? It's a moment where you feel so selfish and so low as a human being, you don't even know how or if you're going to be able to recover from that. Those are the moments where you're challenged as a person to keep going on, and it has created a level of mental strength that makes this seem like nothing by comparison."

Brad Keselowski delivered six of JR Motorsports' nine wins, and its best points ranking to date -- third in both 2008 and '09. (Getty)

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Savior times two

Keselowski had been driving for his father's Camping World Truck Series team when the money ran out in 2006, forcing him to embark on a racing odyssey that included driving for various underfunded teams until one night in 2007 when Germain Racing needed a substitute driver for a then-Busch Series race. The usual driver, Ted Musgrave, was suspended after getting into a scuffle with another driver during the previous race at Milwaukee and Keselowski was tabbed as Musgrave's replacement.

Keselowski qualified first and led much of the race before getting wrecked and having to settle for a 16th-place finish, but he caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who soon put him in a full-time and better-funded series ride with JR Motorsports. That's when Phase One of Keselowski's rise from the depths of his family's financial troubles began in earnest -- and over the rest of that season and the next two, he began winning races and turning heads.

To win the Cup


Brad Keselowski clinches the championship with a finish of 15th or better at Homestead, or 16th and at least one lap led, or 17th and the most laps led, even if Jimmie Johnson wins and leads the most laps.


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"All those opportunities that I had from age 16 to age 24 shaped who I am and prepared me for this moment right here."

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

But it was in 2010 that Phase Two of his resurgence kicked in. That was the year he made what some saw as the questionable decision to leave JR Motorsports and the protective umbrella of Hendrick Motorsports to take the dual full-time Cup and Nationwide rides at Penske Racing.

That's when he asked Paul Wolfe to become his crew chief. Wolfe was a former driver himself who had been working as a crew chief at little-known CJM Racing, which had some money problems of its own. And Wolfe told Keselowski no.

"I had a conversation with him in August of 2009, and I said, 'Hey, man, I want you to come over and crew chief this deal.' And he looked me in the eye and said, 'No. I don't want to do it.' " Keselowski says.

"I think he was kind of mad at me because I wrecked him a couple weeks back [before that]. But he had it coming. Well, his car did. So in November, when we're looking for crew chiefs and evaluating how we were going to make things work down the stretch, [Penske team officials] say, 'Oh, we're really thinking we should go after this Paul Wolfe guy.' And I laughed and said, 'Well, good luck. He already told me no.' Then they said, 'Well, we've been talking to him for the last two weeks and he wants to do it.' I was like, 'Well, where did that come from?'

Wolfe says now that he wasn't mad at Keselowski, although he has admitted he wasn't that fond of him personally at the time.

"I like to consider myself a pretty loyal guy. I had committed to the race team I was with at the time," Wolfe said. "They were giving me everything I had asked for, and I was doing what I wanted to do in building a race team. But come the end of the season, there was no funding there to continue on."

Keselowski says he wanted Wolfe to be his crew chief for reasons that should be obvious to other racers -- if not so much to casual observers of the sport.

"He was a guy who outperformed his resources. In this sport, excellence is defined by the media and the fans by those who win. Those on the inside who compete in the sport define excellence as those who outperform their resources," Keselowski says. "So if you're running 20th in 30th-place equipment, that's how we would define excellence as a driver or as a crew chief. If you're putting together race-contending cars with a 'C' or D-level budget, that's how you define excellence. And it's hard sometimes because most fans and people in the media can't see that -- but they don't know what's going on behind the scenes. Those involved can, and that's what I saw in Paul. And hopefully that's what he saw in me."

Thus began the racing union that has produced magic from the start. Pairing together first in the Nationwide Series in 2010, Keselowski and Wolfe won six races and the championship with a record 26 top-10 finishes in 35 starts, giving owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship of any kind. They joined forces at the Cup level in 2011 and surprised virtually everyone but themselves again, winning three races and finishing fifth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to set the stage for this season.

"I think Brad has matured over the last few years. I think I have in my role, as well," Wolfe says. "I think a lot of that just comes with experience and time. You've got to understand and learn the sport, learn how it works and what you need to do to be successful. The guys who work really hard at that and pay attention, I feel like they usually find their way.

"I feel like that's kind of where Brad is at this point. Obviously he's shown that he's as capable of winning races and contending for a championship as anybody in the garage. He's worked really hard at it. And I think he deserves to be where he's at, for sure."

Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski are looking to add a Cup championship to the Nationwide title they won together in 2010. (Getty)

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The final step

Where he's at is on the doorstep of his first Cup championship. He got here by winning five races -- tied for most in the series with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- and by surviving last Sunday's wild race in Phoenix. Keselowski entered that race trailing Johnson by seven points in the Chase standings, but left with a 20-point advantage after finishing seventh while Johnson wrecked and had to settle for 32nd.

That means all Keselowski has to do is finish 15th or better this Sunday and he will be crowned champion, no matter what Johnson does. He can finish 16th or better if he leads at least one lap, and 17th or better if he leads the most laps. In short, all he needs to do is avoid the kind of disaster that befell Johnson in Phoenix to clinch the title -- and he almost certainly won't have to be hustling like Johnson was to play catch-up unless he encounters early and totally unexpected trouble.

But he still needs to run the race, and no one is more aware of that than Keselowski. "We know what we have to do," he says.

When and if he gets to hoist the championship trophy over his head, he will think about the rocky road he has traveled to get to hallowed ground. And he says he will harbor no regrets.

"There are times when I look over at guys like Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney and I think, 'Damn, I wish when I was their age I had gotten the kinds of opportunities they're getting now," said Keselowski, who is 28 as opposed to Logano's 22 and Blaney's 18 years of age. "I would have four or five years to my career in my prime.' I mean, they're six to 10 years younger than I am and they're as good or better than I am now, so you've got to figure they're going to last six to 10 years longer in their prime than I am. So I'm like, 'Man, I wish I had had those opportunities when I was their age.'

Brad Keselowski has eight wins since the start of the 2011 season, tied with Tony Stewart for the most during that span. (Getty)

"And then I stop myself and say, 'Hell, no!' Because all those opportunities that I had from age 16 to age 24 shaped who I am and prepared me for this moment right here."