There's no easy way to define Brad Keselowski, the soon-to-be 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and a driver who seemingly has spent this season at the center of more controversies than Barack Obama and Lindsay Lohan combined.
And, like the President and the starlet, everyone in NASCAR has an opinion about Keselowski. Some of those opinions place Keselowski somewhere between the anti-Christ and some random Bodine brother in terms of how well he's liked by his competitors. Which is to say, not at all. The reality, though, is far more complicated. At his core, Keselowski is a bare-knuckle racer from the old school, someone who's up on the wheel every lap of every race. That has a habit of rubbing people the wrong way. Badly wrong, in fact.
On TV, Keselowski looks like a slightly grown-up version of Anthony Michael Hall, the mid-1980s movie geek best known for asking to borrow Molly Ringwald's panties to win a bet with his nerd pals in Sixteen Candles. And when he says things like, “Kyle Busch is an ass!” as he did at pre-race introductions at Bristol in August, Keselowski comes across as a petulant punk.
In person, he's nothing like that. He stands tall, with a firm handshake and measured eye contact. He's clearly self-confident, too, with a type of cockiness that has a smooth-edged charm to it – the kind of personality you'd expect to easily make friends and win people over.
Contradictions: They are there in Keselowski's image vs. reality and they are there in his driving, too. In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he drives the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge, Keselowski has been cash money all season long. In the first 27 races of the year, he scored five poles, four race wins, 19 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes – hugely impressive, no matter how you look at it. Even more impressive was the fact that he built up a lead of 373 points over Carl Edwards, the 2007 series champion who, like Keselowski, is running a full-time NNS schedule. At the rate he's going, B.K. will finish more than two full races ahead of Edwards in the championship!
And yet, despite the many triumphs and solid runs, controversy has dogged Keselowski along the way. At Gateway in July, Edwards led going into the final lap of the Nationwide race, but in Turn 1, Keselowski got under him, drifted up, knocked him wide and took the lead. As they headed toward the checkers, Edwards retaliated, turning left into the No. 22, to spin him hard into the wall and triggering an eight-car pileup. Edwards won the race, Keselowski finished 14th.
“I was rubbing on him a little bit,” said Keselowski afterward. “It was just great racing. I figured out a way to beat him. He wasn't happy, so he wrecked me. Wrecking down the straightaway is never cool whether it's at 200mph or 120. I'm sorry that's the way it had to end…I don't think that was cool at all. I'm sure he'll say how sorry he is, or how cool he thinks he is or how great of a guy he is in his own mind, but that's not reality.”
Edwards, who'd previously been on both the receiving end (Talladega, April '09) and the giving end (Atlanta, March '10) of airborne crashes with Keselowski on the Sprint Cup level, was unrepentant. “He'll eventually learn he can't run into my car over and over and put me in bad situations,” he said. “In every situation, there's an aggressor and someone who reacts. I was not the aggressor in this situation.”
A month later at Bristol, Kyle Busch passed Keselowski, only to get bumped from behind and moved out of the way as B.K. retook the lead. Next time around, Busch did what Edwards had done at Gateway – deliberately put the Penske Dodge into the wall.
“I thought I had him cleared on the back, and I moved up in front of him, and instead of him doing an Earnhardt crossover move, he just decided he'd run into the back of me and put me in the fence,” Busch said. “That's Brad Keselowski. So I went into the next corner and dumped him. He does it to everybody else. Why can't I do it to him?”
Keselowski's father, Bob, a former ARCA champion, is confused by the aggression shown toward his son.
“I talked to Brad the other day,” the senior Keselowski told the Associated Press. “I said, ‘Why does everybody think they owe you a payback?' I look back at the racing and I don't know why they feel Brad has something coming.”
But the younger Keselowski has done plenty to fuel the ire of rivals. The night after he got dumped by Busch at Bristol in the Nationwide race is when he publicly called Busch an ass. Busch won the Sprint Cup race; Keselowski finished 19th.
“Sometimes you don't need to mess with people like Kyle Busch,” said veteran NASCAR TV reporter Randy Pemberton. “You don't want to give him extra motivation and it looked like when Busch started that race he was on a mission.”
For Brad, leading the points in the Nationwide Series so far has been the best revenge. “Seems like there's always something negative in this world if you're looking for it,” he says, “but I try to spend time focusing on the positives and not dwelling on the negatives. I think about it every day. I think about it every time I watch ESPN and see the name cross the ticker: ‘Oh, that was my name? And, oh, I'm first in points?' To me that's like a win every week. The smile that brings to my face and hopefully to that of my family is something I'm very proud of.”
Unfortunately for Keselowski, the news is hardly as good on the Sprint Cup side, where he is racing full time for the first time in 2010. When the 26-race regular season concluded, he was 26th in points, ahead of teammate Sam Hornish Jr. but not in the same zip code as Penske's lead driver, Kurt Busch (10th).
“As well as Brad's running in the Nationwide Series, he's still getting his feet wet on the Cup side,” says team owner Roger Penske. “And he'll admit it himself that he needs to get the right setup.”
“We're trying so hard,” says Keselowski. “We can't seem to get that top 10, but it isn't for a lack of effort, that's for sure. A lot of heart and hard work have gone into our program, but we haven't gotten there yet. We don't have quite enough speed in our cars and we must find some. Man, I want to run better than that.”
Keselowski showed progress in September when he nailed his first ever Sprint Cup pole position at Loudon, N.H., but Kurt Busch agrees that Penske's Dodges are slightly behind the top Sprint Cup teams at the moment.
“Right now, Brad's definitely focused on his Nationwide program and we just need to do the best that we can in all areas,” says Busch. “There are different areas that you have a report card for. I wouldn't say we have an A-plus in any specific area, but I wouldn't give us lower than a “C” in other areas. Maybe that's what Brad's alluding to – that he sees many items we have to pay attention to and improve. What we have isn't that bad.”
Not yet excelling at the Cup level isn't a good thing, but it's not surprising, either. Drivers with far more experience than Keselowski have struggled with the current-generation Sprint Cup car. But next year, there'll be no excuses for him, as he moves to the Miller Lite-sponsored No. 2 Dodge that Busch has driven since 2006, while Busch transfers to a new Penske No. 22 car, with sponsorship from Shell/Pennzoil. Keselowski knows, for him, the bar will be raised dramatically.
“Expectations are that whoever drives the No. 2 has to win,” he says. “They've got to perform. Internally we have those same expectations and we want to do it as fast as possible.
“And I think we are on the path of being able to do that. Although we need to show more progress, the progress we have shown to date kinda suggests we can get there with time.”
ALLGAIER: ALL GOOD BUT ALL OVER?
Keselowski's NNS teammate won a race but may lose his ride
In his first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Justin Allgaier has done everything that team owner Roger Penske could reasonably expect of him, winning his first race and ranking far ahead of any other Nationwide-only racer. His reward for all that? Losing his job.
Some 27 races into the Nationwide Series, Allgaier was ranked fourth in series points, behind Sprint Cup regulars Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, and ahead of two other Cup regulars, Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick.
But Allgaier was hit with a particularly cruel economic double-whammy. His sponsor, Verizon, is expected to leave NASCAR because rival Sprint's presence as title sponsor of NASCAR severely limits how Verizon can market itself. On top of that, virtually the only way to sell Nationwide Series sponsorships in NASCAR these days is to have a Sprint Cup regular behind the wheel. As a result, Allgaier has been told he's free to pursue other options for 2011.
In an interview on Sirius Satellite Radio, Penske Racing's v.p. of marketing and communications, Jonathan Gibson, described Allgaier as “a great young driver who we'd like to keep in our organization.” However, he went to explain: “Verizon can't do much at the tracks and they can't do anything with Sprint Cup Series drivers, which is difficult. They've been very creative in what they have done, and they would like to do more…But Sprint obviously does a lot for the sport, so it is what it is.”
Consequently, Verizon will likely take a much larger sponsorship role with Team Penske's hugely successful IZOD IndyCar Series operation.
As far as the larger economic question, sponsorship in the Nationwide Series is extremely tough to come by. Even powerhouse Cup teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing have scaled way back in the Nationwide Series because of the economics – Hendrick shuttered its own team, instead providing engines and technology for JR Motorsports, while Roush Fenway Racing is expecting to scale back from four to two cars next year.
In reference to the frequent number of Nationwide races where one or more of his entries went unsponsored this year, Roush Fenway president Geoff Smith put it bluntly: “We will no longer run white cars.”