Few people expected Brad Keselowski and the Penske Racing No. 2 team to win multiple races this year.
Fewer still thought the 27-year-old had a shot at qualifying for NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup.
And how many could have imagined that Keselowski would finish fifth – ahead of such stalwarts as five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and four-timer Jeff Gordon?
“I don’t think anyone really expected that out of us, but I never stopped believing that we could be a contender and have a lot of fun and do well as a team,” Keselowski said after finishing 20th in the season’s final race at Homestead.
“I think we’ve got a lot to build off of. We’ll have to work on it, build off it, too. I’m real proud of the effort for the whole team.”
Just nine races into the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season, Keselowski and the No. 2 team found themselves buried in the points standings, 28th on the heels of a 36th-place finish at Richmond. A third-place run the following week at Darlington, and his second career Cup win three weeks later, at Kansas, moved him up to 21st, but the team didn’t really begin to click until the most unexpected of occurrences took place.
A crash while testing at Road Atlanta in August resulted in a chipped bone in his left ankle, and left Penske officials trying to determine how the injury might impact their young driver.
While he sat out the following week’s Nationwide Series race, Keselowski said at the time he wasn’t about to miss the Cup race at Pocono.
Not only did he compete, but he won the race as well. The following weeks not only proved how badly Keselowski wanted to race, but just how determined he was as well.
Four finishes of sixth or better – including win No. 3 at Bristol – wasn’t enough to get him in the top 10 in the points standings, but his multiple victories earned him one of the two wild card spots that completed the 12-team Chase field.
And his four top-10s in the Chase enabled the team to climb from 11th to fifth in the final points standings. Only champion Tony Stewart, who gained eight spots in the 10-race playoff, topped his improvement of six positions in the Chase.
Had he not had to pit late at Homestead, giving up a top-five spot for fuel, Keselowski was in position to contend for the win and a possible top-three points finish.
“We were just doing what we could to try to get up to third [in the Chase],” he said. “We were going to finish fifth in the points, so we just took a chance to try to get to third. It just didn’t pay off. ... I think we did all the right things and just didn’t catch the breaks we needed and really just didn’t quite have a fast enough car. We put ourselves in position to have good things happen to us and that’s OK.”
With a car that wasn’t as fast as they had hoped, crew chief Paul Wolfe said the team had to rely on strategy to try and make something happen. While it didn’t, Wolfe didn’t walk away disappointed.
“I’m proud of the effort by everyone on this team,” he said. “We were able to earn a top-five spot in the driver point standings and that’s a great accomplishment for this team.
“We feel like we know where we need to go during the offseason to make our cars faster and run strong for the championship. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. Everybody put the best effort they could to make this car a championship-caliber car and we did that.”
That being the case, Keselowski said the team would continue the unending search for speed as it prepares for the 2012 season.
“We do an excellent job as a team putting ourselves in position where good things can happen to us,” he said, “and I think we’re rewarded accordingly.
“The big thing that we have to work on as a team is we’ve got to be a little faster, have faster race cars. If we can do that, we’ll rely less on strategy.”