Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Dodge & Keselowski Brad-isfaction, Guaranteed

Brad Keselowski is in a very unique position in his young career. He has a Nationwide Series championship, three Sprint Cup wins and is quickly becoming the name driver for a marquee manufacturer. With his most recent win at Pocono this past Sunday, you could say Keselowski’s chances of qualifying for the Cup championship comes with a Brad-isfaction guarantee.

The only problem is, the numbers are as confusing as they are convincing.

Keselowski’s three wins are also three of his four career top-five finishes. One was a plate-race tangle with Carl Edwards, the second a clutch fuel-mileage gamble at Kansas and Sunday’s (Aug. 7) charge to the front at hard-to-pass Pocono, after sustaining injuries just three days earlier in a crash while testing at Road Atlanta. Keselowski suffered a broken ankle, bumps, bruises and a strained back after brake failure sent him plowing headlong into a non-SAFER barrier.

But now, he’s hardly hurting as this man-up performance this weekend now has the No. 2 Miller Lite Charger on the brink of qualifying for the Chase. Meanwhile, teammate Kurt Busch is already solidly in the mix in his No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge, a race winner in 2011 and also a former Cup Series champion.

But while Busch would be the odds-on favorite of the two, it is Keselowski that holds much long-term promise when it comes to winning Cup titles. Often maligned and criticized for being too aggressive on the track (and thus, the recipient of some “Boys-Have-At-It” retaliation) Bad Brad has grown up quickly this season, becoming Dodge’s great hope in sparking resurgence in NASCAR.

His 2010 Nationwide championship was accomplished in part at the wheel of the Discount Tire Dodge Challenger, arguably the best-looking racecar in NASCAR competition with its genuine, throwback looks revolutionizing the outward appearance of the series. Helping to spark renewed interest, success there led to the first NASCAR championship for Penske Racing, only the third for the Chrysler Corporation since 1975.

The Keselowski family has been as much a part of Dodge’s renewed success, a part of the family’s storied racing past. Brad’s father Bob, a solid racer in his own right campaigned a Chrysler LeBaron in the ARCA Series during the early 1990s – at a time when the thought of a Pentastar product returning to circle-track racing was as likely as Plymouth installing a 440 Six-Barrel in a Voyager.

When NASCAR went Truck Series racing in 1995, Dodge returned to the fold and it was Bob Keselowski who was part of the Ram renaissance in making Dodge a legitimate contender in the stock car world once again.

Dodge is in a bit of a precarious position with NASCAR. They are essentially a one-team operation, Penske South carrying the banner in the Cup Series along with a handful of single-car underdogs. Busch and Keselowski information sharing goes up against the maxed-out four-team juggernauts of Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing in Chevrolets, plus the Roush Fenway Fords.

There are also a smattering of other Chevrolet-affiliated teams throughout the field, plus Toyota’s money tree; it all adds up to quite a large technology gap between the lone operation in the Chrysler camp. Once Gillett Evernham Motorsports dissolved and evolved into Richard Petty Motorsports, it was only Penske who was left standing for the Dodge brand.

Or left holding the bag, however you wish to characterize it.

Of course, being the only child means that you also are lone heir to the spoils of undivided attention. But being the only Dodge team in the field, the term driver development has taken a back seat to fighting for survival.

In the long-gone days when money ran freely for Chrysler’s racing programs, there were a number of talented up-and-coming drivers on the roster at Dodge. In 2001, when the company made its return to NASCAR it had such promising names as Casey Atwood and Jason Leffler. In 2002, Jamie McMurray joined the ranks after subbing for Sterling Marlin – winning at Charlotte in just his second start.

Kasey Kahne would become a household name just two years later, defecting from Ford and replacing Bill Elliott in the flagship No. 9 Evernham machine. In 2004, when Penske switched from Ford to Dodge, they added Ryan Newman to the mix, establishing a solid roster of teams with established veterans coupled with some of the most promising talent the sport had seen in some time.

Turns out that’s when the manufacturer would reach its peak. Fast forward to 2011 and the landscape is markedly different. But while Penske Racing is now a lone wolf, they are more than making the most of what they have to work with.

With the arrival of the Nationwide CoT, Keselowski began to really make a name for himself and become the face of Chrysler’s involvement in NASCAR. The Dodge Challenger is the most recognizable car in the field, and Keselowski winning the championship during its debut in 2010 helped bring the car to the forefront against a long list of high-powered opponents.

Keselowski has been a boon for Dodge, to say the least. With Busch shouldering much of the load in recent years with Penske, there is now a viable second team for the 2004 champion to work with. Credit also goes to crew chief Paul Wolfe, who after winning the 2010 Nationwide championship with Keselowski has been able to gain a foothold the second half of this season.

Busch’s Richmond Revolution, which led to major changes within the Penske camp has delivered results for both sides, leading to better chassis and overall quality within the engineering department. On the pit box, there were no such worries with chemistry; paired together, Wolfe and Keselowski have won twice in nine races, now squarely in contention to win the wildcard for a Chase berth under this season’s new points system.

Along the way, Keselowski has also shown remarkable maturation, fortitude and focus. The vicious Road Atlanta testing crash and softball-sized ankle have been well documented, as has the resulting back injury that occurred while hitting a solid barrier at 100 mph – down from the 150-mph speed attained prior to brake failure.

Yet upon exiting the car in victory lane at Pocono, Keselowski’s first thoughts were not of the pain, nor the win but of those 10,000 miles away in a Taliban trap in Afghanistan. 22 Navy SEALs, five US Army Special Forces personnel, three US Air Force special operators, as well as seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter died when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in a Taliban trap in Afghanistan.

“I’m no hero,” Keselowski said. “The heroes are the guys who died in Afghanistan this weekend and I want to spend time thinking about them. They were my inspiration for this weekend, the things those guys do. I’m glad we could win today, but those are the heroes. I just drive racecars for a living.”

More than just a sound bite, Keselowski does have a personal connection to the Navy Special Warfare family.

“I do have a cousin in the Navy SEALs,” he said. “One of the guys who died over there was someone he knew, was friends with. Told me a little bit about this week and it kind of put things in perspective.”

For Keselowski, circling the track with an American flag in hand is more than just trying to mimic the Challenger commercial, with George Washington leading a charge during the Revolutionary War.

What should also be put into perspective is his commitment to the car and the team – still trying to find a way to stay in his Nationwide car this week at Watkins Glen, opting for more practice on a similar race tire as well as getting some more seat time. He’s trying to find a way to work the pedals with half of his feet being mangled, leaving one that needs to work twice as many pedals as normal.

Again, it’s not exactly jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft to do battle, fighting in a far-flung outpost in the mountains of a wasteland, but he’s not taking the easy way out and/or making excuses with the conscious decision to hurtle along at 170 mph not knowing if you’ll be able to stop effectively.

Although he’ll race, injuries make the Glen a risky endeavor for Keselowski – and Dodge, who can’t afford to let their prized pupil get hurt. While there has been talk of potentially expanding other teams into the fold for 2012, that may only include Sam Hornish Jr. running a full Nationwide season in the Alliance Truck Parts Challenger.

There isn’t much of a driver development program underway, and with Penske being the only viable team out there at the moment (with the exception of Robby Gordon in Cup and Randy McDonald in Nationwide), the future of Chrysler’s involvement in NASCAR right now weighs solidly on Keselowski’s bum wheel and Busch’s back.

For now, this duo is holding up the banner quite well. With Busch capturing a road-course win at Infineon and three straight poles, filleting the field in the early portion of races, along with Keselowski as a true teammate that can contribute and now has earned two-thirds of Penske’s wins this year in Cup, Dodge’s future in NASCAR in 2011 and beyond suddenly looks a lot brighter than one would have imagined just a few years ago.

Having showed they can be competitive to dominant with just a pair of Chargers on the track, and win Nationwide races and titles, Dodge could be poised for their second great comeback in the last decade.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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