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Caraviello: Keselowski's background helps him win Bristol

March 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Versatility instilled in Keselowski as a young driver aids in another Bristol win

Brad Keselowski used to get his butt kicked driving late model cars on short tracks.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," he said. "I got it kicked pretty hard."

"This is an earn-it place, no doubt about that. Happy to have earned it."


That kicking, though, came with a purpose. His father Bob, a race winner on what is now the Camping World Truck Series, wasn't going to raise what he called a "one-track Jack" -- the kind of driver who could excel at one place or one kind of race track, only to have the tables turned when he ventured out of his comfort zone. There were too many places, he knew, where the local champion could beat a driver like Jeff Gordon on home asphalt but struggle to win anywhere else.

So he made young Brad travel around, to circuits of all kinds, trying to add some diversity to his son's racing education. By his own admission, the younger Keselowski never thought of himself as a short-track ace. But there was this one place, Toledo Speedway up in northwestern Ohio, a half-mile layout where the corners were banked high and the action was fast. Keselowski competed in a super late model division where he made 15-second laps around that bowl of a race track, so when he came to Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time, something clicked.

"The first lap on this race track I ever took felt just like I was in that late model car in Toledo, Ohio," Keselowski said. "That made me really, really comfortable here from day one. Whether it was my first Truck race, or first Nationwide race, or Cup race here, I've always felt very comfortable here, and picked up a feel for it very quickly that I think has given [crew chief] Paul [Wolfe] the direction he needs to make the right adjustments so we're both good here. So car, team, driver is [doing] exceedingly well, and I think that's part of our success."

No question that was the case Sunday, when Keselowski held off Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth to claim his second consecutive Sprint Cup race at Bristol, another half-mile layout with high-banked corners. He did it in grand fashion, by skirting an early accident, leading a career-high 232 laps, and becoming the latest in a line of Penske Racing drivers -- following Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch -- to establish themselves as the king of Tennessee concrete.

"This is an earn-it place, no doubt about that," Keselowski said. "Happy to have earned it."

And yet, Keselowski differs substantially from his Penske predecessors in one significant way. Wallace came up racing short tracks in the American Speed Association, and is generally regarded as one of the greatest short track drivers in NASCAR history. Busch cut his teeth on the quarter-mile Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and once at NASCAR's national level quickly asserted himself as a short-track star. While Keselowski has a handful of short-track victories from his days in the Nationwide Series, his wins have run the gamut from restrictor-plate Talladega to the Pocono triangle to the high banks of Bristol. He's won at half-mile tracks, one-mile tracks, 1.5-mile tracks, and a 2.66-mile track, and most all distances in between. His specialty, it seems, is anything.

Much of that unquestionably goes back to dad, and Bob Keselowski's desire for Brad to become a racer as well-rounded as the corners here at Bristol. But the younger Keselowski also believes it goes back to his days in the Nationwide Series, when he took over a JR Motorsports No. 88 car at a time when moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers absolutely dominated the lower circuit, and allowed the regulars to scratch out a victory only here or there. That's changed, of course -- many Cup drivers are now placing more emphasis on the premier series, and they've been shut out of the first four Nationwide events of this year. But Keselowski is still in there, trying to pass along the education he once received, and it rankles him when anyone interprets his Nationwide involvement as anything else.

"I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale," he said. "It was in Chicago, I believe. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers, 25 or 26, I can't remember what it was. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide. I guess what I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat, any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever, about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder. If you can run well over there, you can come here and get the job done.

"That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I jelled with and that believed in me. That took a little bit of time, for sure. But I think now that we have it, I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of race track. I was able to learn that, I don't want to say in obscurity, but in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide side was for me. ... What I'm trying to say is that the training and the lower level series of NASCAR, the way they're structured right now, certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past."

It all began to blossom when Keselowski moved into a No. 2 car that has long been one of the best in NASCAR's premier series. And it happened suddenly, as a driver who stood as low as 28th in points last May exploded into an instant championship contender, winning four times between then and now. No wonder Keselowski took such glee in Sunday's repeat performance at Bristol. "When you win one and people tell you it was a fluke, you just want to drive that much harder to win the second," he said in Victory Lane. You could say that about his whole 2011 season as well, given how it arrived almost out of the blue, his rapid ascent leaving a trail of doubters who wondered if he could really keep it up.

Well, he has. A wreck at Daytona and a fuel pump failure at Las Vegas have been followed by a statement victory at one of NASCAR's most trying race tracks. Keselowski shows all signs of settling in to stay.

"I do enjoy the challenge, for sure," he said. "That's what I like about racing in general. I tell this all the time, racing is one thing that makes me get up in the morning, and that's how I know it's special . I love the challenge, I love the fight that you have to put up. The man versus machine, or man with machine, or against other machines and men. It's cool as hell to me. When somebody challenges me, whether it's fans, media, other drivers ... it helps me focus in, for sure. Of course, it means nothing if you don't have a great team that you're surrounded by. And I feel very fortunate to have that as well."

It all came together Sunday, when Keselowski hung on through a restart with 16 laps remaining, and navigated one lapped car after another with Kenseth right behind him. "I need 50 more laps," spotter Joey Meier told his driver at one point. "A little late model race right here."

No problem. Suddenly, it was Toledo Speedway all over again. And this time, someone else was kicking butt.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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