Brad Keselowski does not lack for confidence. Not one bit. At the Penske Racing stop on the annual preseason Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, Keselowski holds court with a flock of NASCAR beat reporters eager to pick the brain of the sport's newest rising star. This just moments after the team announced that both Keselowski and Miller Brewing Co. had signed long-term contract extensions to remain with Penske through the 2015 season.
Asked to assess his own talents, Keselowski doesn't blink. “I'm a B-plus driver with A potential, and whether we get there or not depends on who I'm surrounded by and how hard I work at it,” he says without a hint of doubt or hesitation. It's clear he's put a fair amount of thought into where he belongs in the current NASCAR pecking order. And having thought it through, he's settled it in his mind: This year, his goal is to become an A driver and race for the Sprint Cup Series title.
Considering how far and how fast Keselowski has come in the last year, and how dramatically the landscape has changed at Penske Racing during that time, it seems an achievable goal for the 28-year-old Rochester, Mich., native. A year ago, Keselowski was coming off a 25th-place points finish in his first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Back then, his main claim to fame was a series of on-track confrontations with Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. At that point, he'd mastered the art of talking the talk. Walking the walk? Not so much.
When team owner Roger Penske moved Keselowski into his iconic No. 2 “Blue Deuce” Dodge Charger at the start of 2011, it seemed risky, at best. Sure, he'd won the Nationwide Series title, but at Cup level, he continued to struggle for results. In his first nine Cup races last season, Keselowski never finished a race better than 15th and was 28th in points. He won in Kansas, the 13th race of the season, but not before Kurt Busch had complained loudly that Keselowski was the latest in a series of lackluster teammates who did nothing to help the team.
And then, it all changed radically. In early August, Keselowski suffered a savage crash during a test at Road Atlanta, breaking his left ankle and painfully wrenching his back. Inexplicably, four days later, he won at Pocono Raceway in only his third Cup start there, despite suffering pain so great that he could barely lift the trophy in Victory Lane. Then, he followed it up with finishes of second at Watkins Glen International and third at Michigan International Speedway. And damned if he didn't win the next week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Four races, two victories and four consecutive top-three finishes. Suddenly, Keselowski had arrived.
Although he faded a little down the stretch, “Special K” still finished 2011 fifth in points, ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and both Busch brothers, among others. That his story was eclipsed by Tony Stewart's sensational title run did not make it any less remarkable.
And so, after a season that far exceeded the most optimistic estimates of anyone other than himself, Keselowski wants a title this year. To get there, he believes he'll need to step up within the organization and not just get up on the wheel.
“At the NASCAR level, it's not good enough to be the most talented driver,” he says. “You have to be a motivator, you have to be a team player. Sometimes you have to step up and do things and it's not because I necessarily enjoy it, but because it's what we need to be successful.”
A huge part of Keselowski's success has come from crew chief Paul Wolfe, who was promoted to the Cup series last season. The two worked together during Keselowski's NASCAR Nationwide Series championship season in 2010 and have excellent chemistry. Wolfe says: “With Brad being as involved as he is, he just helps to push and motivate everyone on the team. There's that bit of trust and respect that we have, because we've shown each other, ‘If you give me what I want, we'll get the results.' He believes in me because I've shown him it works.”
Keselowski, though, is only half the story at Penske Racing this season. The team and Kurt Busch parted ways at the end of 2011, after Busch melted down on camera with interviewer Dr. Jerry Punch in the season finale at Homestead. His abrupt departure came when most team/driver deals had been long since signed, sealed and delivered for 2012. Penske reached out to AJ Allmendinger, a driver he'd admired since the 'Dinger was terrorizing the Champ Car series with five wins in nine races back in 2006.
Within a span of just four days, Allmendinger went from taking his first telephone call from Penske to being under contract to drive the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge. It's a huge break – and huge pressure – for the Hollister, Calif., native, who's not had an easy time in stock cars. AJ lived through a disastrous first NASCAR season with Red Bull in 2007, when he qualified for just 17 of 36 races, before moving to what's now Richard Petty Motorsports. Then, two years ago, he went unpaid for part of the year at RPM, as then-owner George Gillett's house of cards collapsed. Last year, Allmendinger had his best season in NASCAR, finishing 15th in points. Certainly, he's now learned how to run up front; his challenge this season will be to finish up there and win for the first time, an outcome likely to occur sooner rather than later.
Asked if this is the biggest break of his career, Allmendinger's smile is large. “No doubt,” he says. “This is it. All I've wanted is the opportunity to show that I can do this, and this is the best opportunity I'll ever have, so it's now or never. My expectations are to win races and make the Chase. Anything less would be a disappointment.”
Allmendinger will be paired with Todd Gordon, who was Keselowski's Nationwide crew chief last year. Gordon and Wolfe get along well and their ability to work together will go a long way in determining how far the team goes in 2012. “The model that will make us successful is if we're one race team with two racecars,” says Gordon.
He also thinks Allmendinger will be a good fit at Penske. “He's just never met a stranger,” Gordon says of his new charge. “AJ has a lot of energy and really appreciates people and the organization; he has great admiration for Roger and the Penske program.”
For his part, Penske likes his prospects for 2012. “I feel good about it,” he says. “We've got new cars – they're light – and I think we have more engine power. Certainly we understand the handling of these cars better than we did a year ago. So I think with the two crew chiefs who've worked with Brad coming up, we've got guys who are going to work together. We don't have little kingdoms in different parts of the shop.”
Still, having a king with a crown at season's end would be deeply appreciated.
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