Race Weekend Central

One Move, One Champion

There’s a name not often mentioned as the catalyst for Brad Keselowski, 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. For every Roger Penske, Paul Wolfe, or Miller Lite VP with a bucket load of cash there’s just one name I will always think of, one whose own failure could have changed the course of the sport.

Mark Martin.

Mark Martin’s success with Hendrick Motorsports, early on paved the way for Keselowski’s exit from a Hendrick-backed team in the Nationwide Series and into the hands of Roger Penske.

People forget it was Martin’s presence on Hendrick Motorsports, in 2009 and his continued success that forced Keselowski into a life-changing decision. The Michigan driver was running a full-time Nationwide Series schedule back then, for JR Motorsports and was a shoo-in for Hendrick’s No. 5 car if/when Martin chose to retire. It was seemingly a perfect scenario, top young driver aligned with the best team with a plan where Keselowski could gradually ease his way into NASCAR’s top level. The idea was, in 2010 for Martin to scale back to 26 races, giving Keselowski at least ten while potentially earning the Cup ride full-time the following year.

Yet destiny, draped within the coattails of success would force everyone’s hand just a bit too early. At Talladega, that April Keselowski was paired with James Finch as part of a limited schedule of Cup races. The single-car team, strong at restrictor-plate events was regarded as little more than a place to gain experience. Instead, a man who prides himself on the role of the underdog took that learning curve and twisted it straight towards excellence. Making contact with Carl Edwards, off Turn 4 in the final lap cemented an aggressive driving reputation, caused a catchfence near-catastrophe and put the Michigan native in a shocking Victory Lane years before he was ever supposed to be there. Suddenly, Hendrick and to a lesser extent, buddy and current car owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were faced with a dilemma on how to keep a driver that had proven he was ready for Cup.

The perfect option, with no room at the inn would be for Martin to scale back even further. It never happened; how could it, with the 50-year-old doing so well he finished runner-up in the standings that year to Jimmie Johnson? Keselowski was left hanging, an uncertain future in which “when” could be “forever” with lifetime contracts for Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. standing in front of him. Waiting for the red carpet ride would eventually mean a top-tier opportunity… just no guarantee of when.

That’s where Brad the risk-taker jumped in. I remember talking with him at Charlotte that season, shortly after making the decision to jump to Penske Racing. There was a clear understanding right then, in a slumping economy and with rides beginning to shrink how to maximize the opportunity of being a top-tier free agent. But combined with that confidence was a vision, a clear set of goals on how to take the team he chose to another level. He talked to me at length about the plans for expansion, how Hendrick’s success was tied to the right people in the right places. Along with it was an idea to beef up a top-tier Nationwide program, building confidence and success in lower series; what was unspoken, as a part of that was buying patience to learn how to drive at the Cup level.

That’s the intelligence behind this champion, as we go through our Monday that made the difference and defined a career. Keselowski has a knack of absorbing the information around him to the point he may have been a more dangerous departure for HMS than their top engineer. Whether it was how to revamp Penske’s personnel, suggesting a way engine shop shared information or a pit stop routine that could save his new team half a second, he knew it all. For what Keselowski gained, in his time with Johnson and Gordon and all the other HMS folk is to be number one… you have to work at it, in all areas. Really, really hard.

But big ideas also came with big risk, along with a big paycheck to pay for all those “quality” changes. That’s especially true for an owner in Penske who already had employed one driver labeled as strong-minded and difficult. That’s where the real man in charge deserves credit; one of the sport’s oldest car owners, at age 72 he chose a twenty-something, innovative thinker with the realization that to win a championship, at NASCAR’s highest level something just had to change. Rusty Wallace, for years was the flagship but never knew how to balance wins with consistency. Then, Ryan Newman came along, the headwind during an era of engineering but losing an edge on technology by the mid-2000s. Kurt Busch, who followed Wallace had his moments but had a little too much temper. There needed to be a right combination of all of the strengths those drivers had.

Keselowski, through the patience of his owner and the quality of his vision was able to grow into that. The first year was difficult; the list of feuds, lengthy (see Hamlin, Denny; Edwards, Carl). But by year two, even before the Road Atlanta wreck you could see a sense of maturation behind the wheel. It helped immensely that by 2011, so many considered the driver down and out; this athlete is the type that uses bulletin board material to run you straight into the ground. Even this year, when so many thought Keselowski was a year away it became a personal mission to make this Chase “his time.”

After all, as we saw in 2009 the driver was never good at waiting. And when all is said and done, in the coming years the short-term gain of keeping Martin at Hendrick may be overshadowed by the long-term success Keselowski earned somewhere else.

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