News & Media

Keselowski still following Earnhardt's example

June 11, 2011, Joe Menzer,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Brad Keselowski's phone was vibrating, and he couldn't wait to find out who was calling.

So he broke the rules. From the confines of a commercial airplane that had just landed but wasn't yet at its designated gate, Keselowski punched up the voice mail from Dale Earnhardt Jr. that would change his life.

"It's still tough for me to this day to kind of manage our relationship that we have as friends -- because you always do look at him as the boss."


"I remember every bit of it," Keselowski said Friday from Pocono Raceway, where he was preparing for this Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500. "I remember I was on a plane from Memphis and had to go through Atlanta. I got on the plane at Memphis and landed in Atlanta, and the [Sprint] Cup guys were in Loudon [N.H.]. I had a voice mail from Dale.

"I can remember specifically trying to check it on the plane. You know how you turn on your phone right when you land? When you're not supposed to have it on, but you're trying to sneak and listen to messages? You know how the deal goes. I'm trying to do the secret lean-in and listen-to on a commercial plane -- and I remember hearing that message. He said, 'Hey, I'd like for you to drive my Nationwide [Series] car.' That was it. I was like, 'Yessss!' I just wanted to shout it out and pump my fist into the air."

Earnhardt had left the message after watching Keselowski drive in the Truck Series for Germain Racing a day earlier in Memphis. Keselowski won the pole for that race and ended up finishing 16th.

"I saw him run that truck and I said, 'The kid's got speed. I love the lineage, the racing family ... his father [Bob] and the history there.' I knew that he, having driven the 23 car in the Nationwide Series at the time, got some pretty good speed out of that car and appreciated what good equipment could do. I thought I might be able to help him," Earnhardt said.

"I just felt like if we gave him a shot, it was going to work out. I thought he had the speed and he had the appreciation for the equipment, so he wouldn't go out there and tear up all our stuff -- because we were on a pretty tight budget on that deal. And he took care of our cars, and we eventually got the team where it needed to be."

The rest, as they say, is history. Earnhardt wasn't pleased with how his No. 88 Chevrolet team was running in the Nationwide Series at the time, so he plucked Keselowski, then only 23, from obscurity and put him in the car for the final 14 races of the 2007 season.

The team and the driver benefited mutually from the association. Keselowski won two races in 2008 and four more in 2009, finishing third in points both seasons.

"When he first got in there, we were maybe a 13th-place team every week," Earnhardt said. "He gave us the ability to start getting the team where it needed to be -- just because he was such a quick study and such a good, fast driver. He gave us the stability to be able to find the other flaws in the race team, rather than wondering if it was just the driver. I don't know. I just figured he'd probably work out."

They split ways after the 2009 season, when Keselowski had the opportunity to drive full time in both Nationwide and Cup for Penske Racing. He won six races and the Nationwide championship last year in his first year with Penske -- and last Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Keselowski held off Earnhardt to win his first Cup race of this season and only the second of his brief career.

Keselowski ended a 75-race winless Cup streak in doing so, but prevented Earnhardt from breaking his own winless drought, which is now up to 106 races. Keselowski said he didn't feel the least bit guilty about it, either.

"You don't feel guilty about wins," Keselowski said. "I felt like we executed on what was a good weekend, and I felt good about that."

Yet Keselowski knows he learned a bunch from driving the No. 88 Nationwide car for JR Motorsports.

"It's still tough for me to this day to kind of manage our relationship that we have as friends -- because you always do look at him as the boss," Keselowski said. "So for me, it was tough to be with him where you one day you would kind of hang out and do some cool stuff, and then the next day you'd be doing something else and he'd be in the boss role. So it was always tough for me to balance those two deals.

"But for the most part, he did a good job of always telling me the good news. And there was a lot of good news when I was with him."

Basically, Earnhardt did a good job of letting Keselowski be Keselowski. There were plenty of times then -- and have been plenty more since -- when the brash, young driver has angered some of the older veterans in the sport. But Earnhardt said he felt he had to let Keselowski learn for himself what flies and doesn't fly in the sport.

Brad Keselowski

Results with JR Motorsports
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"Well, I told him I'd rather not have him running over people. He ran into the back of a few people," Earnhardt said. "But it wasn't my job to be a father [figure] to him; it wasn't my job to father him in that way. He's going to be whatever style of race car driver he wants to be. I felt like he was a little rough at times, but we were still winning races and still having success. I might not always agree with what he was doing on the race track, but he was his own man and I figured I would let him go down the road and learn his own lessons from it. And it seems like he has.

"I don't know if he regrets much. He probably wouldn't change much about it. But I think he makes better decisions now, based on that experience."

Earnhardt said it just wasn't his style to tell Keselowski what to do or how to act all the time.

"You can sit there and tell somebody, 'Look, man don't do this. This is the way you ought to do it. Do it just like this.' But in the end, they've got to go through that process themselves, make some mistakes on their own and learn from them," Earnhardt said. "I don't like being the guy standing there preaching to you about how to race, how to run, what you need to be doing like I'm some kind of damn know-it-all, because I'm not."

Keselowski said he has carried what Earnhardt taught him in terms of patience with a young driver to his own new role as an owner in the Truck Series. Parker Kligerman currently sits eighth in the Truck standings as the driver for Brad Keselowski Racing.

"There are probably things I do to this day that Dale doesn't agree with," Keselowski said. "But that's what life is -- it's making your own mistakes and learning from them, and all that stuff. You have to make a lot of mistakes on your own.

"I've got Parker Kligerman driving for me in the Truck Series, and there are many, many times where I would like to sit down and just grab him and say, 'What are you doing, man? You need to do this and you need to do that.' But at the end of the day, you know he has to learn that stuff on his own."

Just as his boss, once the mere young employee, eventually did.