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Keselowski best thing for NASCAR in years

Published November 19, 2012

There are any number of “leads” a guy like me could write to start a story about Brad Keselowski, who won NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series championship for the first time on Sunday.

How about, “While five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson likes to dine out on pasta fasul and fine wine, newly-crowned title-holder Brad Keselowski is happiest when tucking into a burger and fries.”

Or,

“Jimmie Johnson’s net worth is estimated to be in the neighbourhood of $40 million while Brad Keselowski’s is a paltry $15 mill. But the newly crowned 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is starting to close fast.”

My favourite, however, and the way I will officially start this story goes like this:

“In 1998 when he was 14, Brad Keselowski started racing quarter-midgets. Two years later he switched to stock cars and, after a dozen more, won the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”

I’ll leave off the quotation marks now, because I’m right into it.

Keselowski, who also gave legendary racing team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR Cup championship when he finished 15th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida Sunday, is the best thing to happen to NASCAR in years.

Johnson was a worthy champion but he really does enjoy the sophistication of Europe, his penthouse condominium in Manhattan, white shirts and ties and the good life in general.

And then there’s the Busch brothers. Kurt has won a championship and Kyle has been coming close and they are both insufferable, frankly. They try hard to be Jus’ Folks and fail miserably because they are arrogant and snooty under it all.

But Keselowski is down-to-earth and blue collar. He comes from a racing family. He worked for the family racing business when he first started out, came up the hard way and had to scratch and claw his way to the top.

After he won the title – it’s only his third season of Cup competition – and did the burnouts and sprayed the champagne, he talked about how lucky and fortunate he is to be in the position he’s in.

“I really feel the best is yet to come,” he told a post-race media conference, referring to his car owner, Penske, and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “I think with the people on this team, we can do anything.”

When I first met Keselowski during an appearance at the Canadian Motorsports Expo two years ago, he struck me as an extremely confident, disciplined and determined young man. He wasn’t arrogant; he was focussed. He knew exactly what he wanted and he knew very well how to go about getting it.

Which included, as it turned out, playing some mind games.

When A.J. Allmendinger was suspended for drug use earlier this year, several drivers – and Johnson was among them – worried aloud about the possibility of triggering a positive drug test by taking over-the-counter cold and flu medications.

Keselowski scoffed at them and suggested anybody who took anything for a cold was stupid, saying nobody ever really knows what’s in that stuff.

His message: take that, you losers.

During that media conference Sunday, he talked about being inspired by a video he saw featuring Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Said Keselowski:

“I saw this really cool video that Ray Lewis did and he said, ‘Throughout my whole life I’ve been told that I’m not big enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not strong enough and I don’t have what it takes.’ I’ve used that as a chip on my shoulder that’s carried me through my whole career.

“It took ’til this year for me to realize, they’re right. I’m not big enough, fast enough, strong enough. No person is. Only a team can do that. And these guys up here (members of the Penske team), they make me big enough, fast enough, strong enough to do anything we want to do and it’s because of these guys. I can’t be here without them. I really can’t.”

Keselowski had to finish 15th or better in Sunday’s race to win his first title. He cut it close, finishing exactly that.  Johnson, meantime, gave it the old college try – in fact, at one point, the points margin was down to three points in Keselowski’s favour – but a muffed pit stop in which a wheel nut wasn’t tightened correctly put Johnson back behind the eight-ball and then an engine failure in the closing stages sealed the deal.

Ironically, the race was won by Jeff Gordon, with Clint Bowyer second – and we all remember how the last Sprint Cup race ended for those two a week ago in Phoenix, don’t we?

And Bowyer’s second-place finish vaulted him past Johnson in the standings. The official order of finish in the Chase for the Championship behind Keselowski was Bowyer second and Johnson third.

Quite a turnaround.

Penske said later that he planned to take the Sprint Cup trophy to Detroit and to present it to the executive committee of Dodge, which is leaving the sport for the immediate future. Team Penske will be with Ford in the years ahead, but the Sprint Cup is a nice going-away present for the Chryser/Fiat company.

Several other quick observations.

1. Danica Patrick finished high enough in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday to nail down tenth place in the season standings. This marked the first time a woman has finished top ten in any of NASCAR’s major divisions. It also kept her string of top ten series finishes alive, as she always fnished tenth or better in the standings in IndyCar.

2. In that Nationwide race, Joey Logana lined up Johanna Long for no apparent reason and drilled her nose-first into the wall. The season’s over but I hope he gets a $100,000 fine for that, which is the going rate.

3. Penske talked about the thrill of winning the Sprint Cup. It is another notch in his gold-handled cane. And it is a huge accomplishment. But in the end, we know where his heart lies and what he considers important. If there is an Indy car race and a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on the same day, we all know where he will be and it ain’t at the stock cars.

There was one other race this weekend, in which Lewis Hamilton beat Sebastien Vettel and Fernando Alonso to win the first U.S. Grand Prix at the new Circuit of the Americans near Austin, Tex.

There are now 13 points separating first-place Vettel and second-place Alonso and the season will go down to the wire at Brazil next weekend.

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