The overly simplistic view might be to say that Brad Keselowski somehow lucked into his two NASCAR Cup Series victories this year, that gift-wrapping was involved and that a doubly hexed Chase Elliott personally tied the bow. After all, the element of chance also smiled on Keselowski in both starting lineup draws this season, giving his No. 2 Ford the No. 1 spot each time.
“It’s nice to catch some of those breaks,” Keselowski admitted after his Sunday visit to Bristol Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane, but he noted that something still matters about being in contention, being in a proper position to pounce at opportunities when they unfold. It happened last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It happened Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. It may happen when his status as NASCAR’s top free-agent prospect is finally resolved for 2021 and beyond.
Opportunity might be the story of Keselowski’s season so far, as he adds to Team Penske’s series-leading victory tally with a right-place, right-time strut. Riding two wins in a three-race span have the 36-year-old veteran and new crew chief Jeremy Bullins building their case as early championship players, even as the questions persist about his future, about whether his hot streak will solidify his long-term place at Team Penske or boost his market value for a ride elsewhere.
Keselowski hears the questions, dutifully answers and insists he’s tuning it all out.
“I haven’t put that much thought into anything other than competing and winning and wanting to be in a spot to compete and win for a long time,” Keselowski said. “I don’t let it be a distraction. I can’t always speak for others. The experience I’ve had with the team, they’re not either.”
Bullins, installed in the offseason as Keselowski’s new point man on the No. 2 team, has also heard the questions. He heard them again Sunday and said it’s something he and his driver have addressed. Even as uncertainty abounds, their mission remains fixed on staying the course.
“He and I have talked a lot about it,” Bullins said. “We both have said it’s not going to be a distraction to what we’re doing. If we keep having days like this, it won’t matter anyways.”
Days like Sunday were awfully similar to the previous Sunday, when Keselowski arose to lead the final five laps of the Coca-Cola 600. Elliott’s pre-overtime trip to pit road surrendered that perch to Keselowski for the final stretch, and the former champ didn’t buckle. Sunday at Bristol, Keselowski’s inheritance came from Elliott’s late-race clash with Penske’s Joey Logano, a shunt that handed him the lead for the final three laps.
Part of what put Keselowski there wasn’t just his skill or the strength of his cars, but the team’s resilience, even when other drivers spent more time in front.
“I think that means everything,” Bullins said. “The fact that we know that we just have to keep Brad in the fight, keep him in position to where he can make something happen. I think if we do that, if we can manage to do that throughout the day, he’s certainly not going to give up. I think our team has shown just how strong he can be when you put him in the right position. We’ve been able to do that a couple times.”
It has been eight years since Keselowski hoisted the Cup Series trophy for the first time, back when he drove a Penske-owned Dodge and when “Gangnam Style” became a thing. NASCAR’s playoff format and race structure have undergone two major changes in that time, and Keselowski has stacked 23 more Cup Series wins onto what has become a Hall of Fame-worthy resume.
He has waited the better part of a decade to reprise his boozy celebration from an outsized pilsner glass on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Now in a contract year and with team chemistry growing, 2020 might present a prime opportunity for a second swig.
“We’re all just really happy for each other’s success,” Keselowski said. “We’re there to pick each other up when things aren’t going our way and somebody is having a bad day. I think that’s what great teams do. This is turning into a great team. I’m super, super proud of them. I’m proud to be a part of it. I’m driving my butt off. Sometimes I think I might be driving a little bit too hard. So far it’s been paying off.”
The ultimate payoff may be long-term job security at Team Penske or a lucrative gig with another high-caliber organization.
Just don’t say he lucked into it.