NASCAR

Daytona a family affair for Keselowskis

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Rea White

Rea White has been covering NASCAR full time since 1998. She has won awards from press agencies in Alabama and North Carolina and formerly served as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Follow her on Twitter.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

Brian Keselowski leaned on his slightly dented car, trying desperately to catch his breath. He stood on pit road, trying to take it in.

Next to a line of drivers sporting uniforms emblazoned with logos, Keselowski stood quietly in his black firesuit bearing only two logos — that of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and official tire manufacturer, Goodyear — and the names of his K-Automotive Motorsports team. He looked at his small race team — the one consisting pretty much of his dad and him — and clenched his fingers, the ones that had built this car, into a fist.

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Eight days ago, he didn’t know if he’d even make it to Daytona International Speedway.

But here he was Thursday, in the second of the Gatorade Duels, racing his way into NASCAR's most prestigious event, the Daytona 500. And he did it in epic fashion — with his sometimes bratty and clearly more established kid brother, Brad, pushing him into the field.

"We wouldn’t have even made it here if it wasn’t for him,” Brian said.

That's because, at Daytona these days, it takes two cars working together to move to the front of the field. And if he was to avoid going home, Brian had to be one of the top two finishers among those outside the top 35 in owners points in 2010.

He was well outside of that group when Brad slipped behind him and stayed there. Brad's car pushed Brian's through the field and  into fifth place in the second race.

And that locked Brian into Sunday's Daytona 500.

Though they worked together fabulously Thursday, that hasn't always been the case. They share a somewhat typical brotherly  relationship — it has its ups and downs — and they hadn’t even planned to race this way Thursday. In fact, Brian said he barely spent any time with Brad during the days preceding the race. Their cars are parked relatively far apart in the garage and, in terms of racing experience, in different worlds.

Brad, 27, like Brian, 29, cut his teeth racing for the family team. But Brad quickly hooked up with JR Motorsports in 2007 and drove for them in the Nationwide Series through 2009. Meanwhile, he also competed with Phoenix Racing on a part-time basis on the Sprint Cup circuit, where he shockingly won at Talladega Superspeedway in his third start. Then, in 2010, he won a coveted ride with Penske Racing and won the Nationwide Series title while also competing full time on the Cup series.

Brian, conversely, has made 60 Nationwide starts in the past five years, all with his family owned and operated business. He’s trying to make his way with little funding and lots of determination, showing the kind of grit on which the sport was founded.

And Thursday, he was doing so with another asset — his brother.

“I’m not sure we dreamed about (both competing in the Daytona 500), but I did dream about the day we didn’t beat each other up,”  Brad said with a laugh.

Brian was even more frank.

“Well, we get along a whole lot better (now) that we don’t live together,” he said.

“I would say (our relationship) is up and down. We’re both really competitive with each other. We both wanted the exact same  position at the exact same time. It’s a tough thing growing up. I couldn’t afford to go racing. I worked on my family’s truck team. When we got a little bit of money, got a little bit of sponsorship, Brad got to go quarter midget racing, but by then I was too old.”

By the time he started driving, Brian was 18. Brad already had “two or three years of experience, winning championships” at that  point. Brian’s dad, Bob, made him build his team from the ground up.

Brian doesn’t seem to harbor resentment, but it would be only natural if he would sometimes cast a wondering eye in Brad’s direction. After all, Brad's the one who got the breaks.

“They pushed me in the right direction, my uncle, mom and dad,” Brian said. “But I had to do it all on my own. Bought my own truck and trailer, race cars. They helped give me a motor. If I didn’t put it together, I wasn’t going racing. That’s a lot like it is right now.”

Now it’s pretty much just his dad and him, though his uncle came to help this weekend.

“That was about it,” Brian said. “Without a lot of friends and family, a lot of help, we wouldn’t be here today.”

As Brian worked on his own cars and watched Brad step into proven rides, it would only be natural to feel some jealousy.

“Yeah, I would say so,” Brian admits, his infectious smile sliding across his face. “When it comes down to it, Brad got a good opportunity. It wasn’t the greatest opportunity, but he got an opportunity to run the Nationwide Series when I was supposed to get a chance to drive. I talked to the team. I won an ARCA race. They were pushing to try to get me in the car.”

He missed some ARCA races and wasn’t cleared by NASCAR to compete at Daytona. So the team put Brad, who was eligible by virtue of  having run on the track in other series, in the car.

Otherwise, he might have been in Brad’s shoes right now. Those opportunities would have been Brian's.

“There’s no guarantees,” Brian said, then wistfully adds, “I would have liked the chance.”

But he doesn’t dwell on that for long.

After all, look at what he has accomplished.

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Over the winter he had some people helping with his cars, but he couldn’t afford to pay them so, after a while, they moved on and  left it to his dad. Last week, he called his uncle and asked him to help out. And this is far from a new car. He bought it a couple of years ago from Ray Evernham, before that team merged with Gillett and, later, Richard Petty Motorsports.

So they brought it to Daytona. And then he was in the Duels. And then Brad was on his bumper. The brat he once roomed with latched  his car onto the Brian's bumper and never wavered in the quest to snare a place in the Daytona 500.

There were the Keselowski brothers, blowing past the likes of NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. There  they were, storming toward the front of the 24-car field.

Brian could barely focus in the closing laps as his emotions took over. He couldn’t even speak when he climbed out of the car. He  joined the likes of two-time former Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip and former Cup champions Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte in battling their way into the race through the Duels or qualifying speed.

After he climbed from his car, Brian shared a moment with his brother, the one he laughingly says has “always been kind of a  snotty little kid. I hate to say that because he just pushed me (into) the Daytona 500. He knows I love him. It’s just part of it."

His dad looked on for a moment but was gone by the time Brian looked up and asked, ‘Where’s my dad?’ (For the record, dad was  eyeing the dent in the car and carefully ushering it through technical inspection, protecting their spot in his own way.)

And then it hit Brian.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “My first ever Cup race as a rookie . . .  I didn’t breathe for the last 15 laps. I don’t know when I’m going  to breathe for the next three days. It doesn’t matter, we’re in the thing.”

Before he could talk, though, Brad stepped in to give him a moment to collect his thoughts.

“I’m going to go ask (team owner) Roger (Penske) if we can help him out with a little bit better motor . . . maybe we could have won the race if he had a little bit more. It was great . . . If you can help your brother out; man, there’s only so many things you can do in life,” Brad said. “I can’t say I’ve always been there every step of the way for my family, but it was good to be there for him today.”

And on this sunny Florida afternoon, the past did not matter and the brothers once more felt a bond.

All those chances Brad got no longer mattered. Not to a pair of brothers now preparing to race in the Daytona 500.

“There’s always a little bit of jealously,” Brian admitted as he thought of Brad’s chances. “Then you have to say, ‘What if it  wouldn’t have worked?' We’d both be sitting home. It could go either way.

“We made our first Daytona 500. I guess it’s not all a bad thing.”

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