How long can it take to complete a journey from rags to riches? For Brad Keselowski, it took six years. The driver spent the 2006 offseason mourning the pending bankruptcy of his family operation, and was forced to drive for a minor-league, suspect organization that was running junkyard equipment simply to make ends meet. How bad was it? The driver who this season added hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers mid-Daytona 500 didn’t even make the field for the February 2007 then-Busch Series event at the same track.
Now, Keselowski heads to the 2013 version of the Great American Race with a Sprint Cup title trophy and more money than most 28-year-olds could ever dream of. It’s a historic turnaround that won’t often be repeated in this sport, especially in modern times. But Keselowski, a man known for speaking his mind no matter the cost, has also never forgotten the values that got him there — he spent some of that title money bailing his parents out of debt. It’s a complex mix of private heart and public bravado that puts him in position to attract a whole new breed of fans into the sport as the reigning Sprint Cup champ.
How does he plan to do it? How has reaching the top changed him? And what motivates the bid for a repeat? Keselowski talked to Athlon Sports about all that and much more this December in between trips around the holiday party circuit.
What has the offseason been like for you?
(Laughs) It hasn’t really existed yet. Still working my way through it.
Has being the champion sunk in yet? Or do you think it won’t sink in until reaching Daytona in February?
Probably the pinnacle of how it will sink in, in my eyes — and this is something I give NASCAR a lot of credit for — is when they stage your car in the first position in the garage all season long. I really like how NASCAR does that.
Have you been surprised at anything that’s happened so far? Have you been asked to do things you didn’t expect? Or has it been everything you’ve thought of?
No, no. It’s been pretty good. Nothing’s really stuck out, although I’ve had a lot of fun — I can tell you that. But no real surprises.
How many girls’ numbers have you gotten since Homestead?
(Laughs) Enough to be happy.
The championship can give you one hell of a pickup line.
Yeah, no kidding. (Laughs) I got this trophy…
Humor aside, you’ve taken the responsibility of leading this sport very seriously. What’s the main goal you have off the track that you’re looking to accomplish with this championship tenure?
I want the sport to be stronger. Our futures are tied into this sport, all of ours. And in my eyes, I would like to see the sport grow or at least stop some of the decline that it’s seen. And I want to be instrumental in making that happen. I think it’s very, very possible.
So how do you think you can do that as champion?
I think it’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s one thing. I think it’s a list of slow and steady improvements and updating the sport in different times.
There are critics, of course, in every sport. What do you say to people who say Jimmie Johnson lost this championship instead of you winning it?
I say that’s why we race four more years, and we’ll find out if that’s the case.
Is there an extra sense of pride here in that you left Hendrick Motorsports in 2009 because a full-time Cup ride was never guaranteed — and then you go to Penske, and over a three-year period build up an organization capable of beating them?
You know, that was a tough go, making those decisions. Certainly, it adds an element to everything that happened and the difficulty of success. It’s very sweet to win a championship, and you just add those things up. … I don’t feel like one championship is enough for me to really solidify that position of greatness in the sport. You need to win multiple championships, and that’s my goal.
OK. Well you’ve had a month to think about it; for this first one, what do you think the difference was in 2012?
I think we were really strong through the (whole) Chase. We obviously earned our way into it by winning two or three races beforehand, but in the Chase we were able to find another level, and that’s critical.
In talking to drivers throughout the garage, it becomes clear that you’ve gone from someone who was questioned to someone that, hey, they may disagree with what you say, but you are universally respected. That shift seemed to come during this title run. What, if anything, do you think caused that, and do you feel you’re behaving any differently from two, three years ago?
I’m thinking I’m winning more. There’s a bit of swagger that comes with that which others respect. Success breeds respect.
So you don’t think, personality-wise, you’re any different than you were a couple of years ago?
I don’t think so. I’m sure other people would say that. But I don’t.
A couple of years ago we were talking about your move to Penske, and you said something that stuck with me: “I’m never going to change. I’m Brad, and this is who I am — like it or leave it.” Do you feel like you’ve adhered to that?
Well, I believe there are some slight adaptations you have to have from year to year, to continue to evolve to be the best you can. But the core of who I am hasn’t changed one bit.
Some people have come out and said your sister in particular has made a big difference in your life off the track as of late. How is your true “inner circle” different from two or three years ago, and what are the challenges of keeping it once you’ve enjoyed this type of success?
Well, you’re a product of the people you surround yourself by. That’s some of the most important life decisions you’ll make — whether it’s your personal relationships, marriage, etc. Your family or friends, or even co-workers. The people I’m around, they just keep getting stronger, we keep finding common ground to be the best we can. That’s part of why I’m where I’m at. Obviously, I don’t want to lose that, and I have no intention to do so.
No extra protections once you’re famous?
No, you just have to learn the art of respect for saying, “No.”
Got some state of the sport questions for you. Clint Bowyer is still mad at Jeff Gordon — everyone seems surprised by that. What’s your take, and do we need more people mad at each other in this sport?
Anger is a difficult emotion. I think that you look at today’s society, and (people) relate very well to emotion. They like seeing that out of us as drivers, without a doubt. And that can be healthy. But I think there’s a way to show emotion that obviously can play out — I don’t want to use the word “responsibly” — but a little friendlier than what happened at Phoenix.
But could one say we’ve lost the element of “rivalry” in the last couple of years? Or is it still around?
No, I don’t feel that way. There’s rivalries out there, there always have been. I just think they’re a little more hidden than they’ve ever been. There actually might be more now than ever.
OK, if they’re hidden, how do we un-hide them in a way that’s healthy?
It’s a difficult question, because you look at rivalries in the NFL, and it’s stuff that works very well for them, as well as other sports. It’s a difficult question, for sure. … I think right now the way the business platform is, the business model of racing, the sponsors really make it the hardest sell of all.
Because you look at a sponsor, and when you create a rivalry, you have to understand what you’re doing is pitting two people against each other. So what happens next is the fan base goes against each other. So the next thing you hear from the fans and so forth, “I hate such and such driver because I’m a such and such fan.” And those messages, the angry messages are always the first messages to get through to people, whether it’s on Twitter or at the race. Those are always the first messages to get through, because boos are always louder than cheers. And I think those boos really scare off those sponsors or put that driver in a particularly bad position. When that happens, the way the business model of the sport is, that driver finds it hard to get a sponsor. And when you find it hard to get a sponsor, you know, you essentially have bankrupted your team and robbed yourself of your own competitiveness that you need to be relevant.
So, I think the business model is very complicated for allowing rivalries.
I read with interest this offseason in a USA Today interview that “you felt like you were the last driver to slide through a door” where talent, not money moves you up. But if you’re technically the last person, does that mean the sport’s facing a serious problem, where money is the only way that gets you to the Cup Series? How do you make it stop?
It’s collective across racing, that funded drivers are getting the majority of new positions that open up. And that’s what I would say, for at least a short time period, will be the case for all rides. The natural way for that to change would obviously be if elite talents come up and prove themselves. Guys like Ryan Blaney. But we (as Cup competitors) all have to run behind those guys (for them to succeed).
And not only that, but some doors have to open. You’re looking at a Cup field where the average age is in the 30s. Most of these drivers are in their prime. So, you look at the field, with the exception of three or four drivers, they’re not going anywhere for a long time period. That means there’s going to be very few rides open, very few seats to come open. And there’s not a crop of drivers that’s going to replace them.
That puts the sport in a very interesting position. And eventually, it’ll cycle back when that talent pool gets so depleted where, essentially, the seats will open up. But as it stands now, the talent pool doesn’t lend itself to that happening.
Well, one could argue new rides could open up if we get new owners who want to race. The core group of owners is getting older — yours, Roger Penske, will be 76 years old in 2013. How much longer do you think he’ll do this, and do you worry he may one day step back?
Yeah. I hope Roger does it forever, I think that’s his intentions. I would assume he’s mortal — although I’m not sure of that sometimes (laughs). I imagine he’ll be in it until he proves otherwise, as far as his mortality is concerned.
But I think new owners are very important to the sport. It’s been very interesting to see owners leave the sport, because if you look at periods of time, NASCAR has made it a point to ensure there was a large owner pool from a standpoint of being able to protect the sport in case those owners were to bond together. And that’s slowly disappearing, which I find interesting. I think it’s in the best interest of the sport, purely from NASCAR’s standpoint, to add some owners back into it. To keep everyone honest, so to speak. I think NASCAR sees that, too, but it’s not an easy road to get some owners back in the sport. That’s something they have to work on.
Will the new qualifying rules opening it up to everyone help with that?
Yeah, I think qualifying was more of a perception matter. The perception of the fans was there was the potential for wrong drivers to get into a race. I would argue that has happened before, in the decade prior, but I would also argue in the last two to three years, that hasn’t really been an issue. But I can understand the fan perception — it is what it is.
Heading into next year, you’ve got a new teammate, new car, new manufacturer, and new engine package. Could you have made it any harder on yourself to repeat?
You’re asking the question, could I have made it any harder, and I answer back with, “Could I have made it any easier?” That’s the reality of it. I feel the exact opposite, because I think all of those will be an upgrade from our perspective. I know already that Ford is going to provide an elite car. It will probably be more competitive than what we had last year. I think, without a doubt, our teammate situation with Joey Logano will be improved. I think that whole team has changed internally with different people to be stronger. We’re all curious to see how that pays off.
I think this new car will open up some doors; they’re less aero sensitive, and you’ll be able to pass a little more readily. That’s one of my stronger suits. So I think all of these matters are not to my detriment but in my favor.
For years, you’ve had to sit there and put the bull’s-eye on Jimmie Johnson. Now that you’ve got the bull’s-eye, does that change your perspective at all?
I don’t think I’m the bull’s-eye, for one. I don’t feel like that I’m the bull’s-eye at all. So it’s not fair for me to answer that question if I don’t feel that way.
I would like to be the bull’s-eye one day. But I look at it as 12 to 1. 12 to 1. I told my guys at the Penske Racing Christmas Party — it’s very easy to lose motivation after becoming a champion. But I feel like you have something to prove (still) because everyone keeps telling you you’re the greatest.
Well, I’ll tell you, people aren’t telling me I’m the greatest. I read all these previews, and all this stuff that comes out as Vegas and they have us as 12-to-1 to win the championship. That’s not even in the top 5. So Vegas doesn’t even think we can be in the top 5 next year. I would say that means we’re not a bull’s-eye.
What’s it going to take for people to start believing in you?
I don’t know. It’s not something … I used to be very jaded about it earlier in my career. Now it gives me something to laugh about. Every step of the way, I’ve had people who don’t believe in me. It’s been fuel for the fire. It’s made us stronger. Now, it’s almost to a point where I relish it.
One last question. What’s the status on the tank?
You know, I’ll be honest. I’m struggling. I’ve got a lot of people calling me, but I don’t trust any of them. I haven’t found what I want. I would put my progress bar at less than five percent. I thought it would be a lot easier than it is, I will tell you that. There are plenty of tanks out there, but nobody really wants to sell them. And the ones that do want to sell them just want to make a huge profit — I’m not going to let that happen.
—By Tom Bowles
This story first appeared in the 2013 Athlon Sports NASCAR Racing Preview Magazine.