'The best is yet to come', promises Keselowski
19 November 2012
"It feels pretty good. It feels really good," said the newly-crowned 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, when he finally arrived - late - for the press conference being in his honour, having sampled rather a lot of the product of his primary sponsor Miller Lite on the way to the media centre.
It had been a long road to this moment, which famously began with his first meeting with Roger Penske in 2008 during which he promised the veteran team owner that if he hired him as a driver, Keselowski would deliver a title to Penske Racing. He was good to his word with the Nationwide championship in 2010, and two years on he's doubled down and delivered Penske the biggest crown in NASCAR competition.
"When he came in and said, 'Look, I want to help you build a championship team,' he looked me in the eye and shook my hand - and that's how we started," recalled Penske. "And there's no question that he's delivered way above what both of us probably thought was possible when you look at the competition and what we have to deal with."
In 2010 and 2011, Keselowski was nominally the junior partner in the driver line up, playing second fiddle to former Cup champion Kurt Busch. But when Busch and Penske parted company after the end of the 2011 season, the team needed the young driver to take over.
"I said to him, 'You're going to be the leader of this team,' and I think that you've seen what's happened - he hasn't missed a step, he's galvanised the team," said Penske. "Never does he miss a day coming in the shop, putting his arm around the guys, and that makes a big difference. You can be a big shot, but you've got to get down on the ground and work with the guys that are doing all this work day in and day out."
Even so, the start of the crucial 2012 season hadn't exactly got under way in the most promising manner, as Keselowski admitted.
"We obviously didn't start at Daytona the way we wanted, got caught up in a wreck, but we knew we had some speed in our cars," he recalled. "As the middle of the season and the spring came through, we had them fuel issues, we rallied deep, found a way through them.
"We didn't have the speed we wanted through the summer but what we did have was execution that was incredible, and I knew it right away," he continued. "The spring Pocono race, do you remember that ... Where we had them troubles with some part on the car and we fixed them and came back from what should have been a 30-something place day and finished like 16th, and I knew right then, those days right there, I knew that if we could do that in the Chase with speed that we could win it.
"Then obviously as Michigan and some of those other races unfolded and we continued to work on our car and showed the speed that we did at Chicago, I knew that we had a shot at it, and obviously winning Chicago was a huge catalyst," he said. "Once we won Chicago, I felt like we could do it. I really did. And I knew that we had the speed. So many mile and a halfs in the Chase and all of them aren't away like Chicago, and I felt like at that moment that we had a group that could get the job done."
Keselowski went into the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix neck-and-neck with Jimmie Johnson, but a cut tyre on the #48 proved costly for Johnson and put Keselowski 20 points ahead coming into this weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It sounded a lot, but the race proved closer than expected with Johnson on course for a win and Keselowski struggling to stay in the top 15 that he needed to in order to ensure he clinched the title.
Keselowski insisted he'd never been nervous the entire weekend, however: "I don't feel like there was a part before the race where I was stressed out," he said. "There were some doubts at that moment when that whole cycle was going through, and you just don't know who's on what strategy. I don't know, I'm driving a car, and I'm listening to [the team radio], and I can hear their voice and their voice wasn't real confident, I can tell you that."
Crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted that he'd been nervous enough for the both of them during that stage of the race.
"It wasn't going to be easy, and we weren't in the best situation we wanted to be in," he said. "I wish we had a little more speed in our car tonight. I thought we would have. But at the same time I think we were just being smart. It wasn't a great feeling, I can tell you that. It definitely wasn't."
Johnson ducked into the pits under what proved to be the final caution of the day, which put him on a fuel conservation strategy that left him needing one less pit stop than Keselowski from that stage of the race. Johnson's team mate Jeff Gordon did the same, and ended up winning the race - and Wolfe admitted that it had been the right call, and that he and the Penske team had missed it.
"It was tough. I didn't realize actually those guys were going to give up all that track position and come pit. When they all came and we didn't, it definitely put us in a situation," he said, adding that he'd expected the field to be levelled by further cautions that never materialised.
In the end, it was a moot point: a dropped lugnut on the #48's final pit stop pretty much put an end to Johnson's dwindling title hopes, and ten laps later a drive line failure put the car in the garage for the rest of the race. Keselowski's title was secured at that moment regardless of what happened. Even so, the driver was determined to get back to 15th place by the chequered flag, to prove a point to the detractors.
"I'm so thankful that we drove back to 15th so that I don't have to hear for the rest of my life about how if the #48 had not had them problems he'd have won the championship," Keselowski agreed.
"Brad came over the radio and asked what position we were in and I told my engineers up on the box," confirmed Wolfe. "I said, 'You know what he's thinking? He's thinking he wants to finish 15th because at that point it didn't matter what happened to the #48.' And that just shows the dedication and what this means to him. Sure enough, it wasn't but a few laps later when he came over the radio and said that.
"We just think a lot alike," Wolfe added, revealed the secret of a championship-winning driver/crew chief partnership. "I knew what he was thinking at that point. I think that as bad as we ran tonight that that made it more special that we were still able to finish 15th regardless of what happened to the #48."
Of course, like a true racer, anything less than an outright win was an unwelcome compromise for Keselowski no matter how necessary. "I wanted to win the race, absolutely. I was just hoping that the race would play out to give us an opportunity to do so. Obviously it didn't, but I wanted to win the race the whole time.
Keselowski added that he's taken no pleasure from seeing Johnson's early exit from the Sunday afternoon race which had taken the pressure off him for the remaining 40 laps.
"I don't really enjoy watching hardships happen to my competitors," he said. "In fact, I hate that. I want to beat them on the racetrack. I want to beat them by being the best that we can be and out-executing them and winning on the racetrack. I don't enjoy at all watching things happen to my competitors that take them out like that. I can tell you that I wasn't cheering; how about that?"
The high point of the Chase duel between Keselowski and Johnson had come in a series of late race restarts at Texas at the start of November, which included the two of them making contact a number of times as they battled for the lead. It had been hard, no-holds-barred racing; but also fair, with even Johnson admitting that Keselowski had pushed right up to the line - but at the same time, not gone over it.
It was a remark showing a growing respect for Keselowski in the NASCAR paddock, after a bumpy start for the Michigan-born driver when he first graduated to Cup racing and seemed to make a point of rubbing people up the wrong way.
"I think I suffered from some serious confidence issues when I first came into Cup that were a result of, you know, a lot of things, mostly just not having the speed to be successful and trying to do too much," Keselowski admitted. "I was trying too hard to be the I in team, and there is none, and that's pretty obvious looking back now. But I didn't know that. I do now."
That left him lacking any allies out on the track, and it's hard to have a successful season in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing if there's no one out on track that a driver knows has his back and can be relied upon at crucial moments.
2011 proved a pivotal year for Keselowski. A serious mid-season accident in testing at Road America saw him airlifted to hospital with a broken ankle, and it seemed that his already fading hopes of making the Chase that season were well and truly over especially if he was going to miss out. Instead, he went racing four days later at Pocono - and won. It was the start of a purple patch of the season for him, one that put him in the Chase on a most-wins wildcard.
To Keselowski, that success proved to everyone and most of all himself that he belonged in Cup racing. He was finally able to shake off the chip that had been on his shoulder and allowed the quirky guy with the social media addiction to shine through in 2012. And the more he let 'Keselowski be Keselowski', the better the season went: no wild card was necessary for the Chase this time. Just 12 months before, Keselowski had been touted as a 'star of the future' but no one had ever thought that the future would arrive quite as quickly as it actually did. Even Keselowski admitted it had been a roller coaster few years for him, ever since that handshake with Penske led to a Cup seat.
"I can't believe how everything just came together over the last - what's it been, three years?," he said. "Has it been three years we've been together? Three years Paul and I have been together. We're two for three, Paul!"
Wolfe picked up the reminiscence: "When Brad and I first got together, part of the reason I was excited about working with Brad is because I had seen him win races in cars that I thought weren't as good as maybe cars I was putting on the racetrack at the time," he said. "As a crew chief or a team, that's always what you want, you want a guy that you know can win races when you might not have the best race car out there. I saw that in Brad.
"I never really looked at it from the standpoint of, 'I want to go win a championship with him,' it was I want to go win races and continue to grow as a team," he continued. "We've done that each and every week and every year, and now we're rewarded with a Cup championship."
"For me this is what I love, taking people within at organisation and seeing them flourish, and he certainly has today," said Roger Penske. "Brad has got not only the raw talent but I think he's a thinking driver ... He knows what's going on and takes care of his car. You could see it on the restarts today, he wasn't going to go and over-rev the engine, maybe lose an engine because of a valve spring. I think he's going to be a multiple champion."
Even though he's finally clinched a NASCAR title to go with his years of success as a team owner in IndyCar, Penske said he had no plans of stopping any time soon.
"As far as me personally, I guess I'm going to come to the races for as long as I can. I don't have a deadline, I don't have a number. I guess at this particular point, this racing keeps me young," the 75-year-old commented. "Paul already said to me we've got to go to work Tuesday morning and get ready to go next year. So it doesn't take long to have it sink in, and we've got to think about the future ... I need a couple more championships!"
"I feel like this team with these two people sitting next to me that we can do anything we set our mind to if we work together like we have over the last few years, I really do," agreed Keselowski.
"I just feel so fortunate to be where I'm at right now in life and with racing, to have guys like this around me because you're a product of who you surround yourself by, and I'm surrounded by the best," he continued. "That's as sweet as life gets, to know that you have people around you that can make up for you when you make mistakes, because we all make mistakes, and I make a ton of them.
"You know what? I feel like the best is yet to come. I really do."