Ask Brad Keselowski how quickly one can go from “champ” to “chump.”
One year after winning the 2012 Cup title, he found himself out of the hunt to defend his position atop the points after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Unlike drivers Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart, though, Keselowski didn’t get physically hurt. Instead, it was a year when the team mentally hurt itself. There was off-track controversy, including a February article that NASCAR saw as so scathingly critical that it earned Keselowski a one-on-one with CEO Brian France. There was a failed inspection in April, leading to a 25-point penalty, a lengthy appeal and crew suspensions that cost driver and team its rhythm. Then, there were the strategy shortcomings — losing races for everything from running out of gas to poor tire calls — that left both Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe at wit’s end.
“It’s been one of those years, where you say, ‘How much more can they throw at you?’” Keselowski said after Charlotte in October, the site of his lone 2013 win.
But Keselowski isn’t the type of driver to get down. Instead, after a strong Chase recovery that left him 14th in the standings, the best of drivers not to compete for a title is using the failed title defense as motivation. And a driver who excels when playing the role of underdog is good news for his Penske team as it moves forward.
In truth, driver and team aren’t really that far off. As an example, Keselowski's average finish in 2013 was 14.9. In 2011, with an average of 14.8, the same driver finished fifth in points. He hasn’t completely slipped, just slipped up at the wrong times. A wreck at Bristol in August that left him 30th was followed by a blown engine at Atlanta (35th). The two-week stretch cost him 60-plus points just before the Chase.
A manufacturer switch prior to the 2013 season also led to growing pains. But after moving from Dodge to Ford, Team Penske has quietly become a top Blue Oval team, outpacing current engine supplier Roush Fenway Racing down the stretch last season. Now in Year 2, they’re working more closely together, shrinking the information gap while gaining a level of mutual respect. Roush-Yates engines are durable (Keselowski suffered one engine failure last year) and produce good power. Penske’s two-car outfit may be a hair off of the top teams’ speed, but they’re plenty capable of winning races.
The most interesting move by Penske in 2013 was locking down Keselowski through the 2017 season with a contract extension. This move served a two-pronged need: granting the driver the raise he’d earned and, more important, keeping him in the fold.
When Keselowski jumped the Hendrick ship in 2009, team owner Rick Hendrick fired a warning shot, saying, “Wherever he goes, he’ll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back. I’ve said all along I want him to have the best opportunity, and we have several options, but the one thing I told him is, ‘Look, if you decide to do something different, I want you to have the best opportunity, and whoever you go to drive for just tell them don’t get pissed off when I come after you.’”
With sponsorship on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team expiring in 2014 (AARP) and 2016 (Axalta) — and the veteran presumably exiting the seat sooner rather than later — Penske’s extension dodges a couple of Hendrick bullets.
Longtime sponsor Miller Lite will be back, but for only two dozen races — which tells us the driver got a well-deserved bonus for delivering “The Captain” his first Cup title. MillerCoors isn’t paying less; the asking price for sponsoring a title-winning driver and team went through the roof. Since, longtime Penske associate Alliance Truck Parts (eight races), as well as the Wurth Group (four), have come on board to fill out the season.
Wolfe will also be back at the helm, along with most of the crew, as both driver and chief believe 2013 was a mere anomaly. Wolfe and Keselowski are a formidable duo, calculating and aggressive. They communicate well and are able to adapt to a changing racetrack as well as overcome a bad situation during a race. They don’t often lose their cool, and that’s a big part of why they’re champions in a series that demands concentration and the ability to adapt. Wolfe is an excellent team leader, and his style yields results.
Given talent, equipment and the organization around him, it’s unlikely that Keselowski will stumble two years in a row. The team does need to improve on the intermediate tracks, where its average finish was a mediocre 17th. However, that late-season win at Charlotte, combined with four straight top-11 finishes to close out 2013, makes one think that most of the speed bumps are now behind them. Overall, the No. 2 team may still be a notch below Jimmie Johnson in terms of money, manpower and RPMs, but that gap didn’t stop Keselowski in 2012.
“A champion is forever,” he said at Homestead, not skipping a beat. “It might not be reigning, but you’re still a champion forever. I’m proud of that. I’m looking forward to the opportunities in the future to become a two-time champion.”
For Keselowski, those chances start right now. A Chase berth in a 16-team field is a lock in 2014 and a run at a second title wouldn't be a surprise.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He’s the 2012 champion and he and Paul Wolfe continue to mature as a team,” a rival crew chief says. “Penske Racing will give him anything that he thinks he needs to succeed. Keselowski is still early on in his career development and can adapt to any variables thrown at him. He’s proven he can get more out of a car than most anyone, just look at what he did in JR Motorsports equipment and what everyone else has done in it since.”
“Keselowski is in a Ford, and they struggled for most of 2013,” another crew chief says. “Keselowski’s opinions can get him in trouble with the sanctioning body and that can add to the stress of the team. Another year of mediocrity could cause the talk of Kes being a one-hit wonder to surface.”
One media member asks: “The driver-crew chief duo is too good to not rebound, right? Last season was full of change for them: new manufacturer, new teammate, new alliance with RFR, new stature as the champ. I bet Kes & Wolfe learned a lot from it and it’ll probably make them better. Plus, I can’t help but think this team was penalized by NASCAR because of Keselowski’s pre-Daytona interview with USA Today. I really believe that.”
Looking at Checkers: It takes a special breed to excel at Talladega on a consistent basis — and the thinking here is that Keselowski is one of those types.
Pretty Solid Pick: Keselowski’s last four Martinsville results show finishes of ninth, sixth, sixth and fourth. He’s trending in the right direction.
Good Sleeper Pick: Though not often mentioned as contenders in Loudon, N.H., this bunch has runs of sixth or better in four of the last five races.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Nothing jumps out, but this is worth mentioning: In only four full seasons, Auto Club Speedway is the lone top-10 outlier on his résumé. That’s pretty impressive.
Insider Tip: Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are too smart and talented to suffer a second straight sub-contender season. Use as an A-lister on most any weekend.
No. 2 Team Penske Ford
Sponsors: Miller Lite/Alliance Truck Parts/Wurth Group
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 1st (2012)
Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: Feb. 12, 1984
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
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