New King on the block

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Gordon Kirby

Brad Keselowski surprised many people with his powerful run to last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Keselowski won the championship in only his third full season in the Cup series with Roger Penske’s team. In many races the 28-year-old looked like an old hand, often employing keen pitstop strategy to win five races and establish himself as the man to beat over the year’s final 10 races.

Keselowski’s first championship was also the first Sprint Cup title for Roger Penske’s NASCAR team after more than 20 years of trying. It turned out to be the most elusive goal of Penske’s celebrated career in racing and it was even more satisfying for Penske to do it with Keselowski. “He’s terrific,” Penske says. “He’s the kind of kid who worked on his race cars and slept on the back seat of the truck on the way to the track. That’s where the raw talent comes from in some of these kids who are so good today.”

Keselowski is a third-generation racer from southern Michigan, just outside Detroit. His grandfather John raced motorcycles and cars and Brad’s father Bob started racing when he was six, eventually winning the ARCA championship in 1989. Brad started racing when he was 14 in quarter midgets before moving up through local stock cars. In 2004 he moved into NASCAR’s Truck series with the family team and ran the full schedule in ’05 before the operation ran into serious financial trouble early in 2006.

The Keselowski family had to sell its race shop and assets, but as they struggled financially Brad’s career began to take off and in the last few years he has been able to settle family debts. Dale Earnhardt Jr recognised Keselowski’s ability and hired him in 2008 to drive in the second-tier Nationwide series. The following year Keselowski finished third in the points table and scored his first Sprint Cup victory at Talladega, driving James Finch’s car.

Meanwhile, Penske had been winning races, but not championships, with the likes of Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. Roger says he wasn’t unhappy with the situation, but woke up one day with a fresh view. “I said, we’d better get some young guys in this team and I started to watch some of the drivers in the Nationwide Series. I saw Brad when he was driving for Earnhardt Jr. That brought him a lot of attention and he had success in that car. So I contacted him and we talked about what his future was going to be when he became available.”

Keselowski was committed to both JR Motorsports and Hendrick for another year, but 12 months later neither team was able to offer him a full-time ride in the Nationwide or Sprint Cup series. “So we offered him a full-time programme in both series and he came with us,” Penske says. “That was really the start. He’s a total team player. He’s always at the shop working with the crew. He’s a great kid and an excellent driver.”

In 2010 Keselowski ran both series and won the Nationwide championship, thus taking Penske’s first NASCAR title. “We got Paul Wolfe on board as Brad’s crew chief,” Penske says. “We put the team together and he won the Nationwide in the first year. We weren’t that successful on the Cup side but he was gaffing his feet on the ground with us and we were starting to build the team. Then we moved Paul up to the Cup team last year and Brad just took off like a rocket.”

Penske’s team has switched to Ford this year, after Dodge decided to pull out of NASCAR, but Roger believes there’s a chance Dodge could return to NASCAR in 2014. “I can tell you the Dodge people put in extra effort with people and technical support that really helped us get to the finish line,” he says. “I hope this championship will give Dodge’s senior management a chance to take a look at NASCAR and think about gaffing back in with both feet in 2014.”

For America’s most successful racing team, now number one in NASCAR, the beat goes on.

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