"Bad Brad" not so bad anymore
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP)
His left racing shoe untied to ease the pressure on his sore ankle, Brad Keselowski limped ever-so-slightly out of the No. 2 Penske Racing hauler and plopped down in a director's chair.
Another day at the track was over, but the pain from his broken ankle and bruised back wasn't getting any better.
Not after two sessions of NASCAR Cup practice over the grueling, 11-turn road course at Watkins Glen.
''I'm here and driving, so it can't be too bad, right?'' Keselowski said with a pained smile. ''It feels better, but it definitely doesn't feel much better than last weekend. Driving is obviously hell on it, but we're going to tough it out. I can make it work.''
Keselowski was injured during a testing session two weeks ago when the brakes on his No. 2 Dodge failed and he slammed head-on into a wall at Road Atlanta that did not have an energy-absorbing barrier. Data showed he was traveling about 100 mph at time of impact.
Since then, he's held off nemesis Kyle Busch to win at Pocono and finished second at Watkins Glen International on Monday - one spot ahead of Busch and just behind winner Marcos Ambrose in a thrilling green-white-checkered finish.
If not for a bump from Ambrose, one of the best road racers in NASCAR, that nudged him aside at the end of the race, Keselowski would have had his third win of the season on a track where he was making just his second Cup start.
''It shows how dedicated he is,'' crew chief Paul Wolfe said. ''I don't think he's going to let anybody down.''
A year ago, Keselowski, a third-generation racer, was well on his way to winning the Nationwide Series title. But he was struggling mightily in his first full season in Cup, battling to earn the respect of his fellow drivers.
That's all changed this season.
''I think I'm slowly becoming more competitive, and as you become more competitive you get more respect from your competitors and things just get easier,'' Keselowski said. ''You don't have to fight so many different things. The biggest thing overall is just time.
''I'm getting more respect. I don't know how to quantify that, but I just know that things are getting easier. That makes you look a lot better when things get easier.''
Excelling while driving hurt the past two races made the 27-year-old Keselowski seem like a throwback, if his actions on track already hadn't.
''Brad came in a little too worried about all that, concerned that he wasn't going to be getting it (respect), and I think that bothered him,'' said 18-year Cup veteran Jeff Burton. ''Some people come in and don't even worry about it. You know at some point you're going to have to have everybody's respect, but you can't lose sleep over it.
''You've got to go and be who you are. You've got to race the way you know to race. You've got to be true to who you are, and you have to understand that there's consequences to that, good and bad.''
Keselowski's hard-driving style has repeatedly made it clear he's no pushover, and there have been consequences.
In just his fifth race at NASCAR's top level, he snatched his first victory at Talladega Superspeedway when Carl Edwards tried to block his pass for the win as they sped to the checkered flag.
Keselowski didn't lift and the contact with Edwards sent the No. 99 Ford airborne and upside down, sheet metal spewing in his wake as the car sailed into the safety fence in a scary crash.
After Keselowski collided again with Edwards at Atlanta, Edwards retaliated by intentionally wrecking Keselowski, sending him airborne. And when Edwards intentionally wrecked ''Bad Brad,'' causing a frightening accident on the last lap of a Nationwide race at Gateway International Raceway last summer, both were placed on probation for the remainder of the season.
Keselowski also angered Kyle Busch in a Nationwide race at Bristol last year while the two were racing for the lead. Busch intentionally spun him and went on to win the race. Keselowski finished 14th.
Busch celebrated that win by mockingly rubbing his eyes like a crying baby and was greeted with a chorus of boos. Keselowski promised revenge over the public address system and had some choice words for Busch the next day during driver introductions for the Cup race.
Now, all of that seems like ancient history as the Cup series heads to his home state of Michigan.
''Last year was a struggle for him,'' Burton said. ''He started out this year it was a struggle for him, but they've rebounded. It took me about a year and a half in this series for it to click, for me to say, 'Hey, I understand it now.' I think that's the time frame he's in.
''He needs to and has let his performance talk for itself,'' Burton said. ''He had his incidents with Carl and Kyle and all that, but really if you go out and really think about Brad, he's never really in the middle of a lot of stuff. I think he's done a good job of stepping away from all that and just saying, 'You know, I'm just going to race and not get caught up in all that.' He's done a much better job with that, in my opinion, this year.''
And it shows.
With four races remaining until the 10-race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title begins, Keselowski is a near shoe-in to be one of the 12 drivers to make the postseason. He sits 14th in the standings and is the only driver ranked from 11th to 20th with two wins. The top 10 drivers in the standings and the two drivers with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn spots for the Chase.
''Having my name at the top of the wild-card list and with a strong potential to be in the Chase is a great feeling,'' Keselowski said. ''I'm going to look back on that and smile for sure. We're closing in on something that's a huge accomplishment.''
Especially for Penske Racing, which would have both of its Dodges trying to wrest the title from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
''It's neat to see his maturity. He just continues to grow,'' said Penske teammate Kurt Busch, who won the Nationwide race at Watkins Glen on Saturday subbing for Keselowski, who wanted to drive but was persuaded not to.
''The ''Bad Brad'' label is not as bad,'' Busch said. ''He's able to go out there now and compete at a level that's going to get him a Chase berth. That's what we want to see, and right now he's in great position. To see him settle in with Paul Wolfe and where they are as a team, they have that desire and youthful exuberance, and right now they're putting it together.''