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Monday, August 8, 2011

Brad Keselowski’s gutsy win sends a strong message to competition

If I would have told you mid-week that Brad Keselowski would win at Pocono, claiming his 2nd win of 2011 and vaulting his way into the lead in the hunt for the 2 Wild Card spots in the Chase, you would have called me crazy.

He had just been in a serious accident during testing at Road Atlanta, severely damaging his ankle (he even tweeted pics of the injury, and trust me it wasn’t pretty.)

So the first thought in my head when I saw the news of his injury was: “Well, Brad needed to win another race to have a legitimate shot at the Chase, so he’s pretty much done for at this point.”

So when I saw him win on Sunday, I realized I had underestimated him. Often, when up against an injury, athletes will come through in extraordinary ways – I recall Denny Hamlin’s win fresh off his return from surgery last year, and Dale Earnhardt’s pole run at Watkins Glen despite being severely injured in a crash two weeks earlier at Talladega.

Despite his impressive win, Keselowski remained humble -- and brought up the tragedy in Afghanistan this weekend to remind us that there are much bigger heroes in the world.
“It’s not me, it’s good people. It’s having a crew chief and a team that digs. There are so many people to thank for being in victory lane. I’m no hero. The heroes are the guys that died in Afghanistan this weekend and I want to spend time thinking about them. They were my inspiration for this weekend and the things that those guys do. I’m glad that we could win today, but those are the heroes. I just drive race cars for a living.”

A lot of people talk like that because it sounds good in the media, but in my experience with Brad he’s always been a straight shooter who spoke from the heart. (and I echo his sentiments on the troop tragedy this weekend; I’ll be very happy when we finally get out troops out of that country; 10 years is enough in my book.)

Getting back to racing, I’ll admit that when Brad made the announcement he was going to Penske, I doubted he would be able to succeed on a level that might be possible if there had been a spot for him at Hendrick (and you know Rick wanted to keep a talent like Brad.) I envisioned Brad would struggle some at Penske, then probably go back to Hendrick when Jeff Gordon retires.

Now, I’m not so sure. Roger Penske and Brad Keselowski, a couple of guys with major Michigan ties, are working out quite well for each other, and the #2 team has racked up 2 wins so far in 2011 and is very likely to make the Chase if they can just stay in the top 20, due to the new wild card rule – which I really thing has spiced up the competition.

While I always respected Brad’s talent, I didn’t think he had this in him in 2011, and he is impressing the hell out of me. Last year at this point, he had zero top-10s; so the team has caught fire with its impressive run in 2011, and crew chief Paul Wolfe and the pit crew deserve their share of the credit too.

And as for the Hendrick comparison – Hendrick Motorsports has three wins this year (2-Gordon, 1-Johnson) and Penske has three wins (1-Busch, 2-Keselowski). I’d say that’s pretty impressive considering how Hendrick has dominated the sport for most of the past 15+ years.

Who knows, maybe if Hendrick ever does calling back for Brad in the future, he might have to tell Mr. H … “No thanks. I’m good where I’m at”

From the time he entered the sport, I’ve watched Brad grow from a young truck driver, to a Nationwide competitor, to a Nationwide champion, to a surprise Cup winner, and now into a legitimate contender any given week in the Cup series. His family is a line of great racers, and he might just be the best of them.

Now, as he begins to rack up wins driving for Roger Penske, the whole world is finally seeing what Brad can do, and there’s no way they can write him off as a fluke. With his gutsy win this weekend, Brad put the NASCAR world on notice, and unless he stumbles badly this month, expect him to make the Chase and perhaps spice it up with his Wild Card entry.

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