Since Dale Jr. days, no capping Keselowski's drive
March 12, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Close ties between both drivers go back to Keselowski's days at JR Motorsports
The kid was a menace.
He would show up at the shop and linger for hours, to the point where crewmen would give him grief about needing a girlfriend or having nothing else better to do. He'd get shooed away in the garage area for sticking his head under an opponent's hood, or in his more brazen moments even crawling underneath the chassis itself. He'd badger or harass his own team to try new things, or to give him exactly what he wanted out of his race car. And through it all, these older and more experienced motorsports men would look at one another and wonder -- who does this guy think he is?
Now, everyone knows. Brad Keselowski was about as unheralded as unheralded can get when he arrived at JR Motorsports in 2007 to drive a Nationwide Series car for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It started as a three-race tryout, nothing more, yet it blossomed into a career springboard that ultimately launched the current Team Penske standard bearer to the top of the sport's premier circuit. The characteristic that got him there -- his ability to be an absolute pest -- was the same one which helped him break through at JRM all those years ago, and the same one which helped the 2012 champion win Sunday to essentially lock up a return trip to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Paul Wolfe certainly knows it. The crew chief of Penske's No. 2 car spent this past offseason watching his driver walk in and out of his office, with one question after another in the wake of a campaign in which Keselowski became only the second reigning champion to miss the Chase. In some ways it was certainly reminiscent of the way Keselowski pushed and pulled to get JRM on a surer footing back in his Nationwide days, or how he brought lists of potential improvements to team owner Roger Penske after first making the step up to the big leagues.
"There's been plenty of days when Brad has come into my office and bugged me if we were working hard enough, or if we needed to be testing or what, and I just told him -- 'Just hang in there, we're working hard,'" Wolfe remembered Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "That's just Brad's style. That's why we love him. I mean, he's dedicated. He wants to be the best out there, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to do that. Sometimes it can wear you down, there's no doubt about that, and like I said, he was on me hard over the offseason. But I know that he's just passionate about the sport and being the best."
Earnhardt certainly knows it. It was at JRM -- Keselowski's first real shot at a full-time, fully-sponsored ride after clawing his way up through family-owned or lesser-funded vehicles -- where the Michigan native's indefatigable persistence initially became evident at a national level. It was at JRM when everyone began to realize that this 23-year-old kid was going to give them all hell until he got what he wanted out of his race car. It was at JRM when crew chief Tony "Pops" Eury Sr. had to kick his driver out of the shop on occasion, Keselowski was becoming so annoyingly insistent. It was at JRM where the kid first really started to win, and everyone began to realize they might want to listen to him after all.
"He studies his team, studies the sport, studies the cars, and him and his crew chief work really hard. He overthinks everything, and he comes up with 20 ideas and 18 of them are crazy, but two of them are great. You know, that's the way he always was with us," Earnhardt remembered after finishing second to Keselowski this past Sunday in Las Vegas.
"Pops has had to run him out of the shop, because he's just nitpicking everything on the car -- 'Why is that like that? Why don't we turn this this way, and do it like this?' A lot of the stuff, Pops would have to explain it to him, but hell, a couple ideas would be pretty good. Brad does that with everything, and that's why he's successful. He's obviously a very talented driver, just raw talent. You don't learn that, you're kind of born with some of those things, some of those traits. But his work ethic, I think his dedication to his craft, and he thinks about it every day. I think that's why he's so successful. He's plugged in, real plugged into what he's doing."
Keselowski's time with Earnhardt's team left a real impression -- Keselowski bunked with Earnhardt for a while, and NASCAR's most popular driver can recall taking the future champion to buy new clothes, he was so raw at the time. Keselowski also moved his sister down from Michigan at one point to help with his business affairs, an arrangement inspired by Kelley Earnhardt Miller's stewardship of JRM. It all came full circle this past Sunday, when Earnhardt ran out of fuel on the final lap and Keselowski charged past, en route to a victory which virtually assured that the former employer and employee will both be in the mix for this season's Sprint Cup Series title.
Indeed, the champion driver who held up that oversized wrench of a trophy in Las Vegas has come a very long way from the nosy kid the folks at JRM were first introduced to in 2007. And yet, in some ways, Keselowski hasn't changed at all. He pushed and argued and pestered until Earnhardt's Nationwide program reached the level where it could consistently contend for race wins. Then he moved to Penske and did the same thing, using his powers of persuasion to help deliver the Captain's first premier-series championship. And now he's doing it once more, in an effort to get his No. 2 team back to the level where it can vie for the title once again.
Turns out there's a method to this menace, after all. And from Earnhardt's team to Penske's, that internal drive has always served Keselowski well -- even if it's occasionally gotten him booted out of shops or offices along the way.
"I knew Paul has kicked me out a few times, and I know Roger has given me a couple of sideways looks, but that's part of it," Keselowski said in Las Vegas. "You know, you find one that sticks every once in a while, and that's part of the fun of the sport. … Probably the (most fun) moments in racing are when you've done something no one else has done, because they're a significant accomplishment that no one else can really own. We've done a few of them there, and I know we've got a few more to come, but they come from all those crazy ideas. Every once in a while, there's a good one."