2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 25th (2010)
Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: February 12, 1984
NASCAR 2010 was the rebirth of the Bad Boy in NASCAR, and right at the forefront of the “Boys, Have at It” movement was one Brad Keselowski. The second-generation racer from Michigan has had some noteworthy tangles in his short career, including scuffles with some of Sprint Cup’s biggest stars in Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. That he isn’t afraid to stare down anyone in the sport is both a bane and blessing for the 26-year-old, who roars into 2011 with the confidence of a Nationwide Series title under his belt.
“That championship lays a foundation for success,” he says of succeeding in the second-tier division. “It’s a brand of excellence that carries way more than just your own confidence or even ability. It carries into attracting and keeping top talent that can help you get to (the next) level in Cup.”
That on-track development, combined with a fiery independence, allows Keselowski not to be pushed around on the racetrack, unlike talented young peer Joey Logano. He isn’t going to back down if there is a win to be had, and that could be a huge advantage for Keselowski as he moves into the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge this year — a ride that has been piloted by known hotheads for 20 seasons. After being driven by Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch, the Blue Deuce is almost expected to be at the center of something big.
On the other hand, Keselowski isn’t making a lot of friends, and that can get lonely fast in the Cup Series. It also paints a target on his back, and, deserved or not, that’s not something that helps a guy get a great points finish. The wreckers or checkers philosophy will win some races, but it rarely brings season-long success in a Cup Series where consistency is as important as ever. Aggression requires a certain measure of give-and-take, and Keselowski hasn’t yet mastered the “give” part of the equation. His five DNFs in 2010 — all for wrecks — were more than double the two top-10 finishes he recorded.
What he does have going for him in 2011 is a dedicated sponsor and car owner. The Miller Brewing Company has as much tenure as any sponsor in the sport, and as an organization, Penske Racing has enjoyed 58 NASCAR wins with two teams in the last 20 seasons.
Also in his favor is the promotion of his NNS crew chief, Paul Wolfe, to the Cup operation. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable — the Nationwide title is proof of that — and Wolfe is viewed as one of the can’t-miss up and coming crew chiefs in the garage. As an added bonus, Penske’s motors have been some of the most durable in NASCAR in recent years (the organization suffered only a single engine failure in 2010).
Dodge is also dedicated, albeit shorthanded in the number of teams it supports. The manufacturer has all its eggs in Penske’s basket, although the future partnership of the two can be questioned with Penske’s upcoming Chevy commitment in IndyCar. Finally, the fact that Penske took team-building advice from Keselowski when he arrived from the Hendrick fold says a lot for the driver’s level of talent and understanding of what makes a team successful. The Nationwide program, an expanded workforce in the shop and engineering improvement can all be attributed to Keselowski’s consistent nagging to change the team’s internal culture.
Now, it’s time for the driver himself to mature. His hot temper puts him in some bad situations. One such incident last year came at Atlanta, where a perceived slight of Edwards resulted in Keselowski’s launching into a spectacular airborne flip.
One thing that needs to be questioned is Keselowski’s commitment to a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2011 — regardless of the rules. Historically, this has hurt drivers’ Cup efforts more than it’s helped, and in Keselowski’s case, some festering feuds have had their roots in that series. While a few double-duty drivers have successfully made the Chase, they haven’t won Cup titles. And with the Miller Lite backing carrying sky-high expectations with it, Keselowski may need to make a decision in the near future about where his dedication lies, for 2011 will be a season in which he is tested at NASCAR’s top level — and he needs to pass.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Everyone is waiting for Keselowski to become regularly competitive in Sprint Cup. “It seems really important to Keselowski that he assert himself,” says a crew chief, “and that gets him in a lot of trouble at the Sprint Cup level. He’s got what it takes to be a championship contender, but I think he’s just got to learn to be at home and comfortable in Cup. It’s hard to say whether his struggles are driver or car, but my suspicion is that it’s car. Another year might make all the difference in the world.”
Another crew chief says, “He’s made some enemies by sort of acting like, ‘Hey, I’m not taking nothing off nobody,’ but now he’s got to realize, OK, he’s shown everybody he’s got some toughness. Now he’s got to settle down and act like he belongs.”
Looking at Checkers: The plate tracks — particularly Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: The more physical the better. Watch him at Bristol and Martinsville.
Good Sleeper Pick: Surprisingly, the youngster runs well at Darlington. Not many do.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not surprisingly, he’s still got a way to go to hang with the Cup boys on the road courses.
Insider Tip: He’s still learning the ropes and the team is still coming together. Use in select events only.
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 2
Laps Led: 41
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 16
Bonus Points: 30
Races Led: 6
Average Start: 23.0
Average Finish: 22.4
After First 26 Races: 26th
Final Points Standing: 25th
Driver Rating: 65.1 (26th)