Brad Keselowski was running at the end of every race in 2016 — until the Chase. Keselowski won four times in 2016 — but not in the Chase. Keselowski did everything right in the first 26 races. He won. He avoided trouble. He looked like a contender for his second title in NASCAR’s top series. And then the Chase happened.
Keselowski entered NASCAR’s playoff as the points leader on the strength of his four wins and sailed through the round of 16 with three top 5s in three races. His name was penciled in on a shortening list of favorites to still be standing at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. He kicked off the round of 12 with a top 10 at Charlotte. And then it all fell apart. A crash at Kansas left Keselowski with his back against the wall at Talladega. The Michigan native came through, leading 90 laps and looking like he’d coast to the win. Instead, for the first and only time in 2016, the engine in his No. 2 Ford gave up the ghost, sealing his fate as an also-ran.
There’s so much about Keselowski’s 2016 season to celebrate, but his 12th-place finish in the standings is what goes into the record book. He’s spent a couple of seasons now in the shadow of his younger teammate, Joey Logano, who won more races than anyone in 2015 and came up just shy of the title at Homestead in 2016. But Keselowski already has one title in the Premier Series, and he’s got everything Logano has in terms of equipment from Team Penske. And that makes him a very legitimate threat to win another one.
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With seven full seasons in the top series behind him, it’s easy to forget that Keselowski is just 33 years old. He’s just entering his competitive prime. He’s got the best that owner Roger Penske has to offer in terms of equipment (Penske has been racing and winning for 50 years now, so he’s doing something right). He’s got some of the best power plants in the sport, courtesy of Roush Yates. He’s got a hand-picked teammate in Logano with whom he can work closely, as the two have a similar driving style. That aggressive style is Keselowski’s strength, but it can also be his Achilles’ heel. He’s not likely to back down from a real estate dispute on the track, and sometimes that doesn’t end well. Keselowski has earned both respect and ire on the track, and his volatility can be a detriment if someone crosses him.
Keselowski and Paul Wolfe have also become one of the most formidable driver-crew chief combinations in the sport. The two were paired in Keselowski’s second year with Penske in 2011 and immediately made a statement, winning three races and finishing fifth in points. A former racer himself, Wolfe is able to translate what his driver is feeling into speed on the track and handles Keselowski’s outspoken personality perfectly. Each has elevated the other — the hallmark of a great match.
Keselowski’s outspoken nature would ruffle the feathers of a lot of the corporate sponsors in the sport, but he’s a perfect fit with Miller Lite — a company that has backed similarly outspoken drivers Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch in the past and one that seems more than happy to let the driver be himself. Fans may either love him or loathe him, but his sponsor lets him make his own bed, a rarity in today’s NASCAR, but a key to their successful relationship. Other sponsors who will be back with Keselowski this season include Würth, Alliance Truck Parts, AutoTrader.com and SKF.
Keselowski faces a stacked field and stiff competition this season, not the least of which comes from his own teammate. But he’s run in the same company and come out on top, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win a bunch of races again. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Keselowski found himself in some sort of controversy for something he said or did. There’s a good possibility we will see some of both.