CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s apparently beat-up Brad Keselowski day, and he’s OK with that.
The 2012 NASCAR champion has pretty thick skin, so he can handle the barbs hurled his way since his poor showing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
His day took a turn for the worse awfully fast, just 13 laps into the race, when he charged to the front to take the lead from Danica Patrick. Only there wasn’t a ton of real estate when he slid in front of Patrick. She tapped him, and he spun in front of the entire field.
Maybe it was her fault; maybe it was his fault. Fans are split on placing blame. But Keselowski’s crew chief ruled it a risky move: “We weren’t clear enough to make that. I’ll just call it at that: We weren’t clear enough to make that move,” Paul Wolfe told the driver.
Keselowski’s car slid through the grass and shot back up onto the track. He was lucky there was no massive pileup. But there was enough damage to the No. 2 Ford, causing Keselowski to fall six laps off the pace.
And that’s when Keselowski made a decision: He wasn’t going to ride around wasting his day just because he was in a hole. Instead, he decided to race hard with the leaders in an attempt to slowly get his laps back and maybe put himself back in position to win.
That didn’t sit well with his rivals, especially after he spun in the middle of the pack to trigger a 14-car accident that wrecked former champions Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
The jeers came fast and furious, particularly from Kenseth, who had tangled with Keselowski a week earlier while the two raced for the win at Richmond. Keselowski stomped down pit road and shouted and pointed in Kenseth’s direction. Kenseth wondered Sunday if Keselowski wasn’t a bit of a hypocrite.
“If it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him, we’d all be getting lectured,” Kenseth said.
Kenseth is absolutely right. Keselowski is outspoken and firm in his beliefs, and when he thinks he’s been wronged, he lets everybody know.
That’s because Keselowski has always lived by his own code. When he says what’s on his mind or races in a way that serves only him, he doesn’t really care who gets upset. While other drivers attempt to race by an unwritten code or respect on-track etiquette, Keselowski does his own thing.
He’s always been that way, and he made no apologies for it as he scratched and clawed his way into NASCAR. His family poured every cent into racing, extended themselves far beyond their means in an effort to help Brad and his older brother, Brian, race. More than once, the money ran out and the family was forced to make difficult decisions.
Keselowski, so desperate for that one big break that would jump-start his career, simply could not afford to play the nice guy. He viewed every race as an opportunity to make a name for himself, and he worried he’d run out of chances before he proved his worth.
It led to a yearlong feud with Denny Hamlin, with Hamlin throwing his hands up in disgust after a 2009 Nationwide race at Phoenix over Keselowski’s refusal to calm down on the track. He had multiple scrapes with Carl Edwards, and NASCAR was forced to mediate several times.
None of it deterred Roger Penske, who freed him in late 2009 from a dead-end driver development deal with Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski was the Nationwide champion the next season, and in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2011.
One year later, he was NASCAR’s newest champion, beating Johnson in a round-for-round title fight that gave Penske his first career Cup championship in 40 years.
Keselowski believed that championship validated his bumpy road to the top and earned him the respect of his peers. He badly wanted to parlay his role as champion into a leader of the sport. In his heart, he was certain he’d earned that right.
Only nothing changed.
Before his title defense even began, he found himself inside NASCAR headquarters explaining comments he made in a USA Today article to NASCAR chairman Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy, head of International Speedway Corp. His opinions were not popular, and voicing them got him into hot water time and again last season.
He also learned over the course of the season that the respect he thought he’d earned from his peers wasn’t there. Keselowski very much wants to be one of the faces of NASCAR. When his title didn’t make it happen, he tried to rein himself in a bit to see if that would do the trick.
Instead, his performance suffered. He failed to make the Chase and won his only race of the season in Week 31. During that span, he chose not to shove Kyle Busch out of his way at Watkins Glen – a move that would have given him a win and put him in the Chase.
Keselowski learned the hard way that “life provided me a unique opportunity to have my cake and eat it, too. My read was wrong, though. That opportunity is further down the road if I keep doing what I did before 2013.”
So that’s what you’ve seen on track from Keselowski this season and Sunday at Talladega. He’s racing for himself. He’s not playing nice and he’s taking no prisoners.
That’s why he was racing hard with the leaders while down six laps at Talladega. That’s why he forced himself in front of Patrick just 13 laps into the race.
Sure, he made everybody mad with some moves. But if it wins him races, Keselowski doesn’t care.
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