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Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual
It was a tale of two seasons for Brad Keselowski, NASCAR’s Bad Boy in training. Following in the footsteps of fellow “evildoer” Kyle Busch, the sport’s most aggressive understudy won a Nationwide Series championship while balancing his first full-time big league commitment with Penske Racing. But that Saturday success never carried over to Sunday, as a season topped with just two 10th-place runs led to a deflating, 25th-place finish as a Cup “rookie.” In fact, most will remember 2010 not for those failures but for the flip seen ’round the world — a Carl Edwards retaliation shot at Atlanta in March that turned Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge upside down and led other drivers to proclaim that “he had it coming.”
But don’t expect those negative opinions to rattle a driver who’s the star of his own show, never afraid to say what he thinks in a world where political correctness is often a prerequisite for success.
Athlon Sports: If someone had told you at the beginning of the year you’d win a Nationwide championship but earn zero top-5 finishes in Cup what would your reaction have been?
Keselowski: Well, at least we got something out of the year. But it wasn’t enough. We’ve got to keep working.
That title was something you worked so hard to earn in two years with JR Motorsports, only to see it taken away by Cup guys. Now, in your first year running Cup full-time you’ve done the same thing to promising up-and-comers, including former teammate Justin Allgaier. Justify your run to the championship considering you’ve already moved on to the major leagues.
To me, it’s as simple as I never got bitter because I didn’t win it those two years (as the top Nationwide-only driver). I felt like we put in a great effort, but we never deserved to win it. It’s as simple as that. When I had the opportunity to win it, and to get with a great team at Penske Racing — I had a great team at JR Motorsports, don’t get me wrong — but I had an even better team this year … I felt like it was my chance to turn the tables. Since I didn’t feel bad the two years I didn’t win it, I feel good the year I did win it.
Do you feel like other drivers are losing out on opportunities because you, Carl Edwards, etc., are in the Nationwide Series?
No. And that’s the key part. Nobody seems to understand that. Let me tell you why: They’re not losing out, because if we weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there either. It’s just that simple. Without us, and without Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer before I got in, I wouldn’t have made it to the Nationwide Series. I’d still be in the Truck Series.
I spent all of my career, up until the end of 2007, in the Truck Series. And let me tell you what: It’s a hard world to make a living in — a very hard world to make a living in. It’s because of the Nationwide Series having the Cup drivers that there’s a possibility for all of the others to move up. And they can find a sponsor to compete against them … We’re not taking them away. It’s hard to explain. But there’s a place for everybody to run. There’s a place for everyone throughout the sport, whether it’s the very bottom level or towards the top. To say you took an opportunity away from someone is just not a fair statement.
You’ve made much of the fact that running the Nationwide Series establishes a foundation for future Cup success. Was that the plan all along, to take guys like Paul Wolfe and groom them for roles at the major league level?
Yeah, the plan all along was to take those star people that are on your team, whether it’s mechanics or fabricators — who knows what position. It could even be sponsors, great sponsors, and give them the opportunity to move up. That is one of the things that’s lost in that whole equation — yeah, Paul is being moved up, but so is Ruby Tuesday’s. Ruby Tuesday’s is now a sponsor on my Cup car. So, we create a foundation for success on all frontiers of our NASCAR program through the Nationwide program. Paul is the easy example, but there are so many. And it’s good to reward yourself for those fruits of labor.
Do you feel like this could be the template going forward for young drivers, in order for them to succeed at the Cup level? They stay in Nationwide even though they’re running full-time in Cup … until they get their feet wet at the top level?
Undoubtedly. There’s not a question in my mind that this is the template as the sport sits right now. I don’t see anyone breaking it.
OK, explain to someone how you can go out and dominate a race on Saturday, then run 35th in a Cup race the following day with the same organization.
That’s a great question. This sport is about teamwork and chemistry, and there are times where it’s there and there are times where it’s not. There are times when you consistently have it, and there are times where you consistently don’t. We had it on the Nationwide side for the majority of the year — not every week, but consistently I’d say we did. And on the Cup side, we consistently did not have it. Combine that with the harder level of competition that there is on the Cup side, and it was a recipe for a disastrous year.
When you came over to Roger Penske, you said, “We’ve both got to change. We can’t just be, ‘Cause we’re different, we’re going to have our natural differences. We’re going to have to work together, and it can’t be on one end. It can’t be where I change and adapt to them, and it can’t be where they adapt to me. We have to be in the middle and work together that way.’” How do you feel you’ve changed your car owner in the 12 months you’ve been a part of this program? And how has he changed you?
That’s a great question. I’ve certainly had a commitment to my team that’s grown to the point where I understand way more about the sponsorship role, the sacrifices and investments that are made from those sponsors which still somewhat exceed my understanding. But I have an appreciation for them that I didn’t have before, and a harder work ethic for my sponsors than what I’ve ever had before. That’s one of the largest ways I’ve changed, which I think is all good from that standpoint.
From the Penske standpoint, it’s allowing the driver to be a leader within the company. I didn’t feel like that was necessarily the case before, but I can tell you with recent events over just the last few weeks in November alone, that’s the way the company’s heading and why I feel so good about 2011.
When people say the word ‘Penske,’ that’s synonymous with IndyCar. You’ve talked about dabbling in open-wheel. With all the changes coming to that series, do you see an Indy 500 in your future, and if so, when?
I do. If Roger would allow me to, I would jump all over it. But only if I was capable of winning at the Cup level and only after I was capable of winning at the Cup level. I would love to run the Indy 500, but I can’t knowingly say I can make a commitment to do it until I’ve gotten to where I can win at the Cup level with some frequency. We’re not there yet, so my focus is solely on the Cup side until we can get to that level.
If there’s one thing you’re missing that’s needed to bring the speed to Cup in 2011, what would that be and why?
That’s a tough question. I think we need a complete understanding of the way the front end of our cars work. That’s what we need to find speed.
Does the new nose on the Cup cars help or hurt you?
That’s an unknown for us at this point.
Other than a few incidents with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch this year, you spent 2010 largely under the radar on the Cup side. What did you learn about the sport being able to take a step back and watch the Sunday media circus from the outside?
Not much more than what I had known before. You learn about the little quirks, and so forth. Nothing dramatic.
Probably the fact, more than anything else, that the media continues to love drama more than necessarily performance or significance. It’s kind of strange. I say that in regards to the Jeff Gordon/Jeff Burton fight at Texas, which seemed to get equal attention to Jimmie Johnson setting a record of a fifth straight championship two weeks later.
Interesting. Do you think the media’s perpetuating the Jimmie Johnson negativity then? By not giving the man what you claim is his just due?
They sure have struggled to focus on it, and give it the press it deserves. Most notable thing about Jimmie, to be quite honest, the last few years I didn’t respect what Jimmie did either, until this year. Because quite honestly, over the last few years simply taking the best team and winning with it, there’s not a lot to be said for that. The only thing you can say for that is, ‘You didn’t screw it up.’
But this year, Johnson did not have the fastest racecars, he did not have the best team, but he found a way to win the championship — the first time I’ve seen him do that in all his championships. It’s what makes it so special, and the fact the media can’t wrap their arms around that is sad. It’s damaging to the sport.
After everything you’ve been through, you’ve had incidents with Kyle, Carl, Denny Hamlin … quite a few people in the garage area. If there’s one person out there where you’re in position to gain revenge on them, who’s that going to be and why?
(Laughs) I can’t tell you that one. Sorry.
Being known as an aggressive driver, does that help or hurt your popularity? Does it cause any extra hoops to jump through getting girls?
I think it probably hurts my popularity in the short run, but in the long run I think it’ll be helpful. It’s funny, because I was looking through … NASCAR gives us some sheets on our popularity, who likes us and who doesn’t like us, and so forth based off of polling of the fans. And the area where I seem to be the least popular is within the younger female base, which is kind of quirky.
Really? Where did this sheet come from?
Well, NASCAR does some stuff with us at the end of the year, all proprietary information. But getting back to it, my popularity is best with hardcore race fans that have been in the sport, people who have been watching the sport forever.
On a personal level, how much does it matter to you that most of these guys in the garage will never be your friend, and some will never even give you the basic racetrack respect you deserve?
How much does it bother me? It only bothers me when it costs me performance on the track, and there’s a very limited amount of time where that’s true. And that will come full circle. I wouldn’t say it’s something I go home and cheer about, but I it’s not something I think about everyday, either.
I think I need to continue to grow in the garage, no doubt about that, but that doesn’t mean I feel like (the way) I came into the garage was wrong. But I could certainly grow as a person, be a more active driver and play a more active role in the garage. But the popularity inside the garage will come the most from being successful (on-track).
Looking back at all the feuds you’ve been a part of in your career, are there any you regret, and why?
I don’t regret anything. No, wait … you know what I regret? Not having faster cars.
Who’s the one guy on the Cup side you have so much respect for, you feel like you could never wreck them under any circumstances?
Well, I’d have to say my teammate, Kurt Busch. But since you probably want something juicier than that, I would say Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Are you pulling for Junior this year to turn it around?
There’s a reason they call the second year the “sophomore slump” in the Cup Series, because it seems to affect the majority of drivers out there. How do you avoid it?
Well, it could be argued that I had my sophomore slump this year (2010) depending on how you look at it. To me, if anything I’m going to come out of the gate even stronger next year with the changes we made at Penske Racing. To be honest, I feel like this is my junior year, instead of my sophomore slump. But the way to avoid it is to dig your heels and make sure you don’t become complacent.
What designates a successful season for you?
Progress. Being in contention to win races. That’s what it’s going to take.