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Penske drives Keselowski to bounce back

January 21, 2014, David Caraviello,

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion looking forward, not backward

Brad Keselowski may have grown up in a family of racers, but he lost his grandparents before he ever got to know them. He never really had a grandfather figure in his life -- until he went to work for team owner Roger Penske.

"He's more than a boss to me. He's a friend," the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion said. "I lost my grandparents before I got to know them, and he in some ways reminds me of what I wish I had in that relationship. Because he could be. … He treats me like a grandfather would treat someone, where you almost feel like kin. He doesn't do the 'Brush your teeth' thing, but he'll take you out and go play with you. That's how I feel our relationship is."

That much is evident whenever the 29-year-old Keselowski and the 76-year-old Penske are together, and the exuberance of one and the meticulousness of the other combine to make it seem like yes indeed, these two Michiganders could indeed be blood. But it's also evident when Penske isn't around, and Keselowski is standing in his transporter at Daytona testing talking about the reasons why the No. 2 team will be better in 2014, and one of them is because the driver wants to succeed for his car owner as much as himself.

"When situations come up like the Rusty deal, or winning the Nationwide owners' championship, winning the (Sprint) Cup championship, or whatever it might be," Keselowski said, "when I see him really get excited -- that makes me feel good."

No wonder, then, Keselowski was so willing to step out of his car for a stretch of Daytona testing and let retired Penske legend Rusty Wallace take a few laps in a No. 2 car bearing a retro paint scheme. No wonder he seems more and more like Penske, from his attention to detail to the rhythm of his speech. And no wonder Keselowski takes such a pragmatic, almost clinical approach to rebounding from last season, when he became only the second sitting champion to miss the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Ah yes, last season. A campaign where Keselowski posted top-fives in each of the first four races -- something last achieved by Jimmie Johnson eight years prior -- closed strong in the final handful of events, and had everything go wrong in between. Penalties, a crew chief suspension, crashes, mechanical malfunctions and an untimely slump right at the end of the regular season -- it all combined to leave Keselowski on the outside in, and Joey Logano as the only Penske driver to make the playoff. Traipsing on the Wild Card tightrope for weeks on end, Keselowski didn't get the victory he sorely needed until Charlotte in October, by which time it was too late.

"I think if you took last year and you took probably our first six or seven races, and then our last six or seven races, we were a top-two or three team," Keselowski said. "Just the in-between, we weren't at that level."

In the end, Keselowski joined Tony Stewart in 2006 as only the second defending champion to miss the Chase. The No. 2 team has made some changes as a result, including shuffling the over-the-wall crew. And yet, speaking with Keselowski, there are no signs of teeth-gnashing or self-pity. He hasn't spend the winter beating himself up. This offseason hasn't felt much different from the previous one, really, despite the stark contrasts in the campaigns that preceded them. "The pressure to perform is the same whether you've been successful last year or not," Keselowski said.

Besides, he's been through this before -- kind of. All the misfortune the No. 2 team battled last season reminds Keselowski somewhat of the summer of 2011, when "everything hit us," he recalled. Contact and a cut tire ruined a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600. A cut tire and heavy impact with the wall at New Hampshire put a painful exclamation point on a slump that dropped him to 23rd in points that year. Then, he went out and broke his left ankle in another crash, this one during a test session at Road Atlanta.

The result? He won the next week at Pocono, won again two weeks later at Bristol, and completed a memorable surge to make the Chase. "I knew we were good enough to go on a streak like that, we just had to execute. And just that like, the execution came," he said. "I never felt like I got better because I broke my ankle, I can tell you that. I just felt it was a great coincidence of events where we started executing as a team at a very high level, to go with the speed and performance we had before that, just lacking the execution."

The key is the same, he believes, to bouncing back from 2013. "I feel confident. I feel like the burden is on us. We have to do our jobs," Keselowski said. "We do our jobs, and we'll perform. If we don't, we won't. But the tools are here for us to be successful, and I'm going to push everyone around me to use those tools to our full advantage."

Befitting his status as a social media leader within the garage area, Keselowski is well aware of what some will make of a first-time champion winning the title one year and then missing the Chase the next. "Anybody who ever tells you they never worry what other people think is lying," he said. "It's to what extent that it bothers you." Toward that end, Keselowski leans on history, and drivers who had to wait a while until their second title, or their next best shot at it. "That's what makes me feel all right," he added.

Case in point: "I was thinking the other day about how Dale (Earnhardt) had won his first championship in ‘80 -- and I'm not trying to compare myself to him, but you can see parallels. And he didn't win his next one for five or six years. I looked at Matt Kenseth last year, and he won his championship in 2003, and you could easily say last year he was one of the best drivers, if not the best driver. Then you look back and say, why?" Keselowski asked.

"Because it's more than just an individual effort. It's a team sport. At that level, they slipped, his team or whatever it may be. When they got back, he got back. He's a part of that just like I am, too, and maybe he had a dip in his own personal cycle, it's hard to say. But I feel the same way. I feel if we put everything together, I'm motivated, and if the car fits me well enough, we can go out and win races and win another championship."

No doubt, Penske -- who spent 15 years pursuing a premier-series championship in NASCAR with Wallace, to no avail -- would agree. And no doubt, the driver wants to bounce back for his team owner as much as he does for himself. "He definitely makes me feel that way," Keselowski said. Indeed, the two of them could be kin after all.


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