Aggression at the Cup level is hardly a phenomenon. Most racecar drivers thrive on it. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards come to mind, and Tony Stewart isn’t a passive guy on asphalt either. Jimmie Johnson isn’t as hardcore, but he will step it up when he has to. Besides, in the last 50 laps of a race, a driver damn well better start fighting for positions. Especially if he’s fighting for a job.
When Brad Keselowski was interviewed by our own Tom Bowles on the matter of his barrel roll at Atlanta, he not only avowed that he isn’t going to change his aggressive style, but also reflected a sentiment that rings with some NASCAR fans: There are no new development drivers coming in. He had a point.
I have to admit, I wasn’t overly impressed with Keselowski during his run in the Nationwide Series. He seemed overly brash and unwilling to learn when to dial it back. Even though he had won a few races, he hadn’t set the world on fire driving for anyone else in the Truck Series, and it looked, to this writer anyway, like he was benefiting from top-notch equipment built on the sly by Hendrick Motorsports under the JR banner.
But given that highly touted ESPN superstar Danica Patrick has yet to break the top 30 in similar equipment, maybe the driver matters after all. And if nothing else, Keselowski deserves credit for making a name for himself and landing a top-notch ride in a minor-league series where a pretty face often matters more than driving ability to a sponsor.
Someday, guys like Justin Allgaier and Kelly Bires may have Keselowski (and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) to thank for re-opening the door for talented drivers looking for a full-time development ride. For many years, while Buschwhackers took over the show in the Nationwide Series, developing drivers were locked out of any decent chance to show what they’ve got on the racetrack. The problem reached its lowest point in Milwaukee in 2007, when Denny Hamlin was helicoptered into the speedway to replace Aric Almirola, who was yanked out of his No. 20 after winning the pole and while running third.
Other than Joey Logano, who had to win nearly every race in every series he competed in before landing a full time Nationwide ride, there have been so few seasoned up-and-comers who made their way through the ranks of stock car racing that you hardly hear “Raybestos” anymore. This year most fans couldn’t tell you who the Cup rookies are. This is because there wasn’t much in the way of quality rides for budding young talents to prove themselves.
The Cup series had an influx of open wheelers for a time, drivers who had at least proven themselves somewhere and that owners thought might have been a better bet. That hasn’t been the case. Juan Pablo Montoya has done a fine job adjusting, but he is the exception. Sam Hornish Jr. isn’t there yet, and it’s easy to think that Penske might have been better served hiring someone like Almirola for the No. 77.
In this environment, maybe one can’t blame Keselowski for being willing to rub fenders and mix it up. It may have made him some adversaries in the garage, but it’s gotten him to a level that few developing stock car drivers have reached lately. There’s a fine line on a racetrack between bullying people and not taking any guff from anyone. Whether Keselowski blurs that line is open to debate, but this is the way he believes he needs to be.
Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series was one hurdle that Keselowski had to overcome; NASCAR’s team car limit also put him at a disadvantage. Had Rick Hendrick been permitted to field five cars, there probably wouldn’t have been a problem building a car for a driver with six Nationwide wins and consecutive top-three finishes in the standings, all while battling Cup drivers in top equipment.
As it was, if Keselowski wanted to race for Hendrick, he would have either had to wait until Mark Martin retired, which might not happen in this century either, or hope that Stewart-Haas saw fit to run a third car. With Kevin Harvick a likely candidate for that option, Kes probably had no choice but to take over the No. 12 at Penske.
Keselowski is now 30th in the standings, but he was running in the top five at Atlanta before Edwards decided to use the No. 99 as a spatula, bringing the No. 12 to a 36th-place finish. He lost a tire and crashed at Daytona for 36th. Turn those two runs into top 10s and he could easily be on the Chase bubble. And there isn’t any question that the guy could hold his own at Bristol, finishing a respectable 13th, all the while looking over his shoulder for the Nos. 11 and 99 cars.
This with a No. 12 car that last season never cracked the top 10 with David Stremme behind the wheel. And with a Penske team that had just one car in the top 25 in the 2009 standings.
I didn’t expect Keselowski to do well in the Cup Series driving the No. 12. Nor would I have expected him to challenge for Nationwide titles looking at his Truck Series numbers. Wrong on both counts. Logano may have gotten the accolades for his progress, and deservedly so, but Keselowski and his aggressive style may start consistently landing top finishes even more quickly than Logano did. The two drivers may make for a good fan rivalry in the future too, having polar opposite reputations.
Twice Brad Keselowski has overcome some tough odds. Whether his fellow competitors like him or not, he’s proven himself worthy of respect for that.
- Leave it to Johnson and the No. 48 team to effectively extinguish any buzz that may have jolted NASCAR fans out of their collective slumber in 2010. After two weeks of buildup for the Bristol race and the newly exciting Edwards-Keselowski feud, the two raced each other quite nicely while Johnson won again. Back to sleep. They’ll keep winning until someone knocks them down, gang. Frankly, I don’t see it happening this year.
- While I’m in an “admitting I was wrong in my assessment of talent” mood, I have to acknowledge Steve Addington’s performance thus far as crew chief of the No. 2. After seeing Bobby Labonte and JJ Yeley accomplish little in the No. 18 with Addington on the pit box, I was prepared to give most of the credit for Kyle Busch’s stampede to the driver. But even Kurt Busch is saying that Addington is making the Busch brothers look mediocre as drivers. Quite a compliment.
- Did you ever think you would see that many empty seats at Bristol? I know I said I liked the old pre-Chase, pre-repaving Bristol better, but I didn’t think that many people agreed.
- I came across a service called “Boston Pedicabs” where people pedal bicycles with rickshaws attached to points of interest in Boston. I emailed them with a parking question; the gentleman told me they have been trying to get their service set up at NASCAR events. Would be a good idea for those huge parking lots at tracks. If any track owners are reading, have a look at it.
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