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Caraviello: For Keselowski, breakthrough began in Chicago

September 17, 2011, David Caraviello,

JOLIET, Ill. -- What started as a three-race tryout for JRM has blossomed into shot at Cup title

Before there was the Chase berth, before there were the multiple race wins, before there was that dramatic, calamitous first victory at Talladega Superspeedway, there was a tryout. JR Motorsports was almost out of race cars, the organization's previous few drivers had wrecked so many of them. So team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to put an unheralded Michigan native in the seat of his No. 88 for three races. If Brad Keselowski wanted any more, he'd have to earn them.

"I still have a lot to prove ... but the hardest pressure point was trying to prove that I even deserved a shot."


"He was the first driver that gave us that opportunity. I guess we owe him as much credit as he owes us."


"Penske's stuff wasn't running good when he got there. I'm telling you, that's the guy who fixed that program right there. I don't have a doubt in my mind."


Although the Keselowski family has a long history in NASCAR, nobody at JRM was very familiar with the quiet, somewhat shy 23-year-old who arrived in the shop in the summer of 2007. "We really didn't have a clue," remembered competition director Tony Eury Sr. "Dale Jr. just said, 'I have a guy I want to put in my car, and I think the kid is going to be good. I want to put him in there.' We didn't have a clue. We really hadn't paid that much attention to the guy. None of us knew him."

Soon that would change. It's barely a footnote now, but Keselowski's breakthrough in NASCAR's national divisions began with a 14th-place finish in a Nationwide race at Chicagoland Speedway, the same track where the Penske Racing driver will make his Chase debut Sunday. Now, he's a rising star in the sport's premier series, with a stable ride and a bright future and a shot at the Sprint Cup championship. Then, he made do in spot starts or underfunded cars before earning a make-or-break, three-race opportunity with a Hendrick-backed program that began on the 1.5-mile track in Joliet.

"There was a lot of pressure there," Keselowski said. "Quite honestly, I look back earlier at launching my career and think about how much harder [that was] than what this is. To me, this is a cakewalk. I mean, I know it's not going to be easy to win the Chase, but from a pressure standpoint, I really don't feel any. I felt pressure when I got the opportunities to drive for Dale Jr., to drive for Rick [Hendrick], and drive for Roger Penske and [sponsor] Miller Lite. That was the pressure to me, was kind of proving that we belong. ... I still have a lot to prove, don't get me wrong, but the hardest pressure point was trying to prove that I even deserved a shot. So I'm very thankful for the opportunities that I have now, and hopefully, those moments are what will make me even more prepared for this moment here."

That was a different time, and Keselowski was a different driver. Despite its popular owner and high profile, JRM had yet to establish itself as an organization capable of winning races and contending for championships in what is now the Nationwide Series. And the glib, confident, somewhat brash Keselowski everyone knows today had yet to emerge. Every Monday morning, JRM's new driver would come by the shop, and sometimes he'd stay for hours. It got to the point that his crew would tease him good-naturedly for having nothing else better to do.

"He was just a real shy guy," Eury said. "He didn't talk a whole lot. He never swore, he never drank, anything. When he first came down, we all messed with him all the time. He didn't care anything about girls, he didn't have a girlfriend, the only thing he studied was racing. That was the only thing on his mind, racing. He didn't care about anything else. He didn't care about girls, he didn't care about partying. Racing was the only thing he cared about."

At the race track, that single-mindedness served a purpose. Eury said Keselowski was "nosy," but in a good way -- he wasn't afraid to look under someone else's hood or even climb under another car to catch a glimpse of what the competition was doing, and what his team might be doing better. Some people would yell at him, others would laugh at him. "He wasn't scared of anything. He was a rookie, he didn't care," Eury said. "If he saw something at the race track he wanted to try, it didn't matter what it was, he'd give us hell about it until we tried it."

At JRM, his first priority was to take care of equipment, given how low the team was on cars from all the scrapes its previous drivers has been involved in. Toward that end, Keselowski's background driving inferior equipment came in handy -- he had learned how to not only squeeze everything he could out of a vehicle, but also keep it on one piece. And yet, Keselowski could also be demanding to work with, because he knew what he wanted out of the race car and wasn't shy about prodding his crew until they found it.

"He knows what he wants," Eury said. "He knows the feel he's got to have. He's a hell of a damn wheel guy. He just has all kinds of car control. He don't wreck a lot of cars. He knows what he wants, and he stands firm with that. Once that crew chief starts to listen to him, and realizes he does know what he's talking about, he starts running good. That's exactly what happened to us. When he first came in here, we were like, 'Oh, this little snotty-nosed kid, what does he know?' And then the more you listen to him, the more you start going in the direction that he [says]. You just start paying attention to him. And when you start running better, you're like, 'Well, maybe he does [know].'"

Keselowski became so consistent behind the wheel, Eury said, that over time his crew could just look at the air pressure in the tires and know exactly what kind of setup suited their driver. Eventually, the results followed -- in his all-important third start in the No. 88, Keselowski earned his first top-10 finish, and won the right to finish out the year. The next season he won twice, and the season after that he won four times. Prior to the 2010 season he left for the Sprint Cup opportunity at Penske, a move that had Earnhardt's blessing. But before moving on, Keselowski helped establish JRM as a contender on the race track.

"He was the first driver that gave us that opportunity," Earnhardt said. "I guess we owe him as much credit as he owes us on the deal."

Keselowski is still close with the guys at JRM, occasionally racing go-karts, playing in football pools, or knocking back a cold one with his former teammates. All of which made last week's scenario at Richmond so strange ? there was Keselowski, bidding to get into the Chase via a top-10 points position rather a wild card, a mission that if successful would have knocked his old boss out of the playoff altogether. "Certainly at Richmond, it would have been an interesting moment had something happened where I bumped him out, but it didn't come to fruition," Keselowski said. The two drivers exchanged handshakes and congratulations on pit road after that event, greeting one another as equals rather than employer and employee.

"I think it is important that me and him stay good friends," Earnhardt said. "He's going to need all the friends he can stand throughout his career. I think that I can continue to help him just as a supporter. He is a good guy, and I like him, and I want to see him do well, and I think he will."

Earnhardt isn't alone in that sentiment. Keselowski's first Sprint Cup season at Penske was a struggle, with the driver failing to manage even a top-five finish. The first third of this year was also underwhelming, with Keselowski standing 25th in points as late as the Charlotte race in late May. Since then, he's won three races and emerged as an unlikely title contender. Eury knows how Keselowski turned his program around -- in the same demanding, persistent way he did with the No. 88 team at JRM, beginning with that long-forgotten first start at Chicagoland.

"I'm not a bit surprised," Eury said. "He's just that determined. He went to Penske, and Penske's stuff wasn't running good when he got there. They were a little bit off. And I know what happened. He went in there and screamed and hollered and pushed, and he fixed their program. I'm telling you, that's the guy who fixed that program right there. I don't have a doubt in my mind about that."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.