Brad Keselowski readies for another opportunity at Talladega: ‘It feels like we’re due’

Brad Keselowski emerges through white smoke smiling and waving to fans during driver introductions
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

Brad Keselowski is inching ever closer to his next NASCAR Cup Series victory.

At least it sure feels that way.

The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion is in the midst of a five-race streak of top-10 finishes that includes a runner-up result at the regular-season finale on Aug. 26 at Daytona International Speedway. That should be encouraging for the driver of the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford, and even more so as the team’s co-owner considering RFK’s other car – the No. 17 driven by Chris Buescher – went to Daytona Victory Lane.

The NASCAR Playoffs continue with another mammoth of a drafting track at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday afternoon (2 ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). Even better news for Keselowski? He leads all active drivers with six wins at the 2.66-mile, high-speed and high-banked tri-oval.

“I see us having a great opportunity to win the race,” Keselowski told in a Wednesday phone interview.

MORE: Current playoff standings | Talladega schedule

No, he has not yet won in the Next Gen car, which debuted as he transitioned to RFK Racing for the 2022 season. But he certainly appears closer than ever since departing Team Penske. After missing the NASCAR Playoffs a season ago in a campaign that produced his first winless year since 2010, Keselowski’s stats have bettered exponentially year over year: one top five and six top 10s in 2022 have rocketed to six top fives and 15 top-10 finishes through 30 races this season. His average finish is 13.0 — six positions better than where he ended in 2022 — and enters Talladega seventh in standings, a far cry from his 24th-place ranking last season.

“It’s everything we need to be doing right now — other than winning,” Keselowski said. “We need some wins. And we’re right there on the cusp of it in a lot of ways, but it’s so close yet so far away.”

Ahead of the second of three races in the Round of 12, Keselowski sits seven points ahead of the elimination line. Talladega presents a possible shakeup in the standings given its predictable unpredictability, but Keselowski isn’t quite worried.

“The playoffs are more about consistency than they are winning until you get to the last round,” he said. “And I think we’re doing the consistency thing and if we finish top 10 in the next two races, then pretty safe bet that we’ll advance the next round. But I don’t have to count on that.

“We want to win races, and then you don’t have to worry about it at all. That’s the easiest way to control your destiny. But short of doing that, we’re controlling what we can control. We’re getting solid finishes, scoring lots of points and living to fight another day.”

Keselowski has long been a stellar superspeedway racer: His first career win came at Talladega and he owns wins in both the summer race and qualifying duels at Daytona. But more notably he was an immediate threat for the win at these large, drafting-style facilities as the Next Gen car hit the track. He and Buescher swept the 2022 qualifying race wins leading into that season’s Daytona 500, an event that saw Keselowski lead 67 laps and backed by 42 circuits out front in this year’s “Great American Race.”

Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski race across the finish line at Daytona
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

“If you compare it to the Gen 6 car, the Gen 6 car was a lot more lane independent,” he explained. “I feel like the old car really liked when you ran the higher lanes, and this newer car really likes when you run the lower lanes. It reminds me more of the truck the way it drives. And that was certainly took a little bit of time to get used to. You know, we did get a couple of tests in early on and got our cars really driving good. We had some good driving cars and that certainly helps, and we’ve got some really good power under the hoods with Doug Yates and that helps as well. And then it’s just a matter of developing the tactics. I got a great spotter, TJ Majors, and a great teammate with Chris Buescher, along with his spotter Mike Herman (Jr.). And so those are some pretty formidable advantages we have and we’re just doing a good job of connecting those.

“And I think you look at us this year on the plate tracks, unfortunately, we got wrecked in the last lap at Daytona. Outside of that, we’ve been in contention to win every one of them and leading laps or being in the top two or three in the last few laps and that’s really exciting. Unfortunately, we haven’t put a W on the board on any of them but it sort of feels like we’re due.”

Indeed, if this is the weekend that win comes, its significance would reign in various ways. Keselowski currently sits tied for second-most wins at Talladega all-time, his six even with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon for that runner-up spot behind Dale Earnhardt’s 10. Make no mistake: Breaking that tie is at the forefront of Keselowski’s mind.

RELATED: All-time Talladega wins | Brad Keselowski through the years

“I think every win is meaningful, but I think there’d be a lot of things that if we were able to win, it would come together at once,” he said. “You know, my family is going to be there and I want to be able to win with them there and I want to be able to break into that second place. Dale Sr.’s record is still pretty far away, but it still would be nice to own second place.

“And then be able to get my first points win with RFK and at this time in the playoffs, to not have to worry about the (Charlotte) Roval would be huge. I really need those five (playoff) points. If we get to the next round, I need five more points for that next round, so that would be huge. There’s a lot of things that would make it a really big deal and I’m excited to see that play out.”

To Keselowski’s earlier point, a pair of top-10 finishes at Talladega and next week’s Round of 12 finale at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course would likely propel him to the Round of 8 — which means Sunday is not a must-win opportunity. But the second-generation racer from Michigan has been clutch at Talladega before, scoring a victory in a must-win position back in 2014 that propelled him to the Round of 8 in the first year of the elimination-style playoff format.

NASCAR CLASSICS: Rewatch Keselowski’s walk-off win from 2014

“2014 was a special moment for me and that’s a win I’ll never forget,” Keselowski said. “I’ll never forget being in Victory Lane. I’ll never forget that feeling of moving into the next round. And that was the first year of the playoffs, so that was kind of special as well. That was a very unique moment. And I don’t know if I can replicate that — I’m not trying to. Each moment is its own with its own characters and its own dynamics. But they’re all great checkmarks in a career that live on for a long time.”

For now, the ultimate checkmark is the next victory. The No. 6 RFK Racing team heads to Talladega with an eagerness to show up to the track, a positive tension among the group as results trend upward. Is it enough, though, to claim the team’s ceiling is the pinnacle — a NASCAR Cup Series championship?

“We have an opportunity at it,” Keselowski said. “Certainly we have some work to do. Right now, we represent two of the 12 cars in the playoffs. Hopefully, we can represent two in the eight in the next round. And those are some pretty good odds. But everything is earned; nothing’s given. So you know, you can’t get too caught up in your own press clippings.”