Preseason Rank: 2
The least experienced driver in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup put the field on notice that he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future. After a sizzling summer, Brad Keselowski turned a lot of heads late last year and enters 2012 with the confidence that he can do it again.
As a part-time Cup driver, Keselowski proved he could win in 2009 when he held his line against a charging Carl Edwards at Talladega, taking the win with Edwards’ spectacular wreck in his wake. And after a rocky start to his career at Penske, 2011 showcased the driver’s versatility. Keselowski proved he could win consistently, scoring three victories at three different types of tracks — two of them while driving with a broken ankle. By the end of the season, he had unseated former teammate Kurt Busch as top dog in the operation.
Owner Roger Penske was clearly paying attention. He gave Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe multi-year contract extensions in November that will keep them together for the foreseeable future. Wolfe, more than any other, was the biggest piece in Keselowski’s surge to the top. Coming over from the duo’s championship Nationwide team, his rookie season at the helm was nothing short of spectacular. This no-nonsense Northeasterner keeps the sometimes-cocky Keselowski in check as a master of communication able to use his racer’s feel to make the racecars faster.
This driver’s core support system behind the scenes also remains in place. Penske Racing prides itself on meticulous attention to detail, and that is reflected in its factory-backed Dodge program — the only factory-backed Dodge operation in Sprint Cup. For many teams, that would be a disadvantage, but for Penske, it’s not even a speed bump; the focus and the funding help give it an edge. The Penske engine program is also stout, as neither Keselowski nor Busch suffered a single engine failure in 2011.
Speaking of Busch, the elephant in the room must be addressed: Will Penske’s dismissal of Busch in December 2011 negatively affect the organization? Whether Busch and Keselowski saw eye-to-eye on everything is irrelevant; when a team loses a driver with Busch’s experience — he is the 2004 Cup champion and winner of 24 career Cup races — it’s only natural to expect a drop in expertise.
The Miller Brewing Company continues its long relationship with Penske’s “Blue Deuce” in 2012. First appearing on the No. 2 car in 1991, Miller enters its third decade on the No. 2 this year. That kind of loyalty is rare, and it adds to the stability this team enjoys — as the year begins, driver, crew chief, sponsor and equipment will not change. It means that the team can fine-tune the cars that it learned so much about last year. There is no adjustment period to learn communication, and there is none of the week-to-week stress that many teams have over funding issues.
Keselowski had top-10 finishes at virtually every type of track on the circuit last year. Where the struggles can come is in maintaining performance week-to-week — he had almost as many finishes of 25th or worse (seven) last year as he did top 5s. Still, he seems to be one of those rare athletes who shine brightest when the pressure is at its greatest. When the heat is on, Keselowski is at his best. That, possibly more than any other trait, could be his key to Chase success.
Keselowski has shown himself to be an ultra-aggressive driver who doesn’t sit back and take anything from anybody, but do not mistake that for recklessness. He’s actually more reckless with his mouth these days; NASCAR fined him $25,000 for criticizing its fuel injection program on his Twitter feed. And while his sense of “tell it like it is” public confidence remains strong, it’s notable that he’s made up with past rivals like Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch — reducing his number of on-track incidents. Maturity, the mark of a champion, is starting to poke through more than ever.
So Keselowski has now proved that he can win, he can win despite adversity, and he can handle the pressure of superstardom. That’s a dangerous combination, and Keselowski will soon serve notice that the Sprint Cup trophy could be his.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
The 2011 season was a breakout year for Keselowski, but the question remains: Can the trend continue?
“He’s a star now,” one competitor says. “It’ll be interesting to see how higher expectations affect him.”
Keselowski proved throughout the second half of the season that previous stats and expectations meant little to him. One garage insider believes that in order for him to be a star, however, he will first have to shrug off the chip on his shoulder.
“If BK would drive as fast as he types and runs his mouth, he would have been a champion in 2011,” he says. “He may have a ton of talent — and totally proved it — but the chip on his shoulder, I think, has him looking over his shoulder. He is someone that could be a superstar in the sport if he would only piece all together what a superstar needs to be.”
“I think he’s one of those guys that comes along every-so-often,” one media member says. “A guy that, once it clicks, watch out. Well, watch out, because it’s clicked.”
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 14
Laps Led: 298
Laps Completed: 10,507
Lead Lap Finishes: 23
Bonus Points: 29
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 14.4
Average Finish: 14.8
After First 26 Races: 11th
Final Points Standing: 5th
Driver Rating: 87.1 (13th)
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