Tough Times Meld Keselowski into Champion
When Brad Keselowski enthusiastically guzzled the product of his primary sponsor on national television following November's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he wasn't merely celebrating his 2012 championship season.
He also was toasting to a bright NASCAR future at Penske Racing.
For all the glory gained in capturing NASCAR's premier championship in only his third full-time Sprint Cup season, Keselowski insisted that the times when he knew he was a true contender might come as a surprise to most. It wasn't necessarily when he won his first race, leading nearly half the laps (a total of 232) at Bristol in the fourth event of the season. And it wasn't necessarily any of the five times his No. 2 Dodge graced Victory Lane.
Nope. It was on days such as the spring Pocono race, when Keselowski qualified 31st, struggled all day, then salvaged an 18th-place finish at the end. Or the following week at Michigan, when he qualified 25th and wrestled an ill-handling car to a respectable 12th-place finish.
"Those were days when we had some troubles with some part of the race car, and we fixed them and came back from what should have been a 30-something-place day," Keselowski said. "I knew right then, on those days right there, that if we could do that in the Chase [for the Sprint Cup] with speed that we could win it."
When he won at Chicagoland Speedway in the opener of the 10-race Chase, any lingering doubts he and crew chief Paul Wolfe might have had were erased for good.
"Winning at Chicago was a huge catalyst," Keselowski said. "I knew then that we had the speed. With so many mile-and-a-half [race tracks] in the Chase, even though all of them aren't like Chicago, I felt like at that moment that we had a group that could get the job done."
When all was said and done, they got the job done better than anyone else during victorious race days not only at Bristol in the spring and Chicago in the fall, but also at Talladega and Kentucky in between, and again in the Chase at Dover afterward.
There were hurdles to be overcome along the way. In March, Penske Racing announced it would switch manufacturers from Dodge to Ford at the end of the season, leading outsiders to wonder how Keselowski and the No. 2 team would react. What had been a weakness early on -- poor fuel mileage as Penske and Dodge engineers attempted to navigate the new fuel-injection systems on the cars -- became a strength as the season progressed.
Throw in the increasingly improved speed of the cars, the ability of Wolfe to make them better on days when they maybe weren't as fast at the start, and Keselowski's rare abilities behind the wheel and a champion was made.
In the process, Keselowski gave venerable Roger Penske his first Cup championship 40 years after the car owner fielded his first NASCAR entry. The accomplishment fulfilled the goal that the driver and owner set together when Keselowski first began driving full-time for Penske in 2010, and it set the table for a promising future.
"It's not how much money you put into your race team," Penske said. "It's all about the people and the human capital, and I guess Brad is right at the top.
"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. That's how we started -- 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. But he's a great leader on our team."
So raise your glasses. Let's offer a toast one more time to the latest NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, who unquestionably deserves it.