Keselowski didn't take easy route
Racing is the common bond that brought Brad Keselowski, Roger Penske and Dodge together.
And as Keselowski celebrated his NASCAR Nationwide Series title on Monday night, he was far from alone.
For the 26-year-old, third-generation racer from Rochester Hills, Mich., not only won his first NASCAR championship, but his family's first title in 41 years.
For team owner and motorsports icon Roger Penske, it was his first title after 27 years of stock car racing
For Dodge Motorsports, a longtime supporter of the Keselowski family, it was the manufacturer’s first Nationwide Series title.
Although it took a team effort to accomplish the task, Keselowski took great satisfaction in bringing the hardware home after the struggles he overcame. Although the No. 22 Discount Tire team wrapped up the title two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, Keselowski is just beginning to understand the depth of his achievement.
“It sinks in when you hear stories about that, about how your family feels about it and realize how special it is to them – that’s when it really sinks in,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard for me to celebrate my own accomplishments as much as it’s easier for me to celebrate the accomplishments and what they mean to those around me. That’s where it really sinks in.
“We talked about how special it is for myself and for (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) and Mr. Penske and then you realize that this is Dodge’s first Nationwide championship. They never won a championship at this level, so now they have all three checked off, which is cool. Special for them and for me.
“I look at the Dodge piece and take a great deal of pride in it and having the background that I do with Dodge and being able to secure their first championship. A lot of these guys I still remember or recognize from when my family was with them.”
The Keselowski family’s relationship with Dodge dates to 1959. Like the auto manufacturer, the Keselowskis have experienced highs and lows. The last full season the family fielded the No. 29 truck was in 2005, with Brad behind the wheel. It was as far as the family could take their then-21-year-old son.
The following season, Brad witnessed his family’s race team go out of business. It was by far the most difficult juncture in his career.
“We sold the shop, packed up and moved out,” Keselowski said. “That was a hard time. Really tough. That was definitely the low point. Dug in, I refuse to lose. That’s what it takes.
“I went over to help out Kelly Sutton in the Truck series and spotted for her for the majority of the year until she got hurt. She got hurt in a real bad wreck in Kansas, can’t remember when that was in ’06, had to be June. I got to fill in for her and subbed for her one week as a driver and ran good, two weeks actually. Memphis and Kentucky and ran good both races, had a decent team there. Kind of caught the attention of Todd Bodine, ironically, and from there, there weren’t really any breaks. Just kind of stalled out. I got a few small opportunities to spot and drive, but nothing of any major note.”
Keselowski pieced together enough work to keep going. He remained a fixture in the Truck garage. When former champion Ted Musgrave wrecked Kelly Bires and was parked the following week at Memphis, Keselowski finally had his shot.
“It was really the break that got my career going, to drive Ted’s truck at Memphis that next weekend and ran great, got the pole, almost won the race and drew the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Keselowski said. “Once I got with Dale, just being surrounded with good people over there at his company, my career took off and really got some footing.”
The ability to compete in top-of-the-line equipment at JR Motorsports for two full seasons and finish third in the points against Sprint Cup drivers captured the attention of fellow Michigan native Roger Penske. Not only did Penske offer Keselowski the opportunity to drive in the Nationwide Series, a full-time Sprint Cup seat came along with the package.
The partnership between Keselowski and Penske came together at a critical time for Dodge’s parent company Chrysler. As great as the human element plays a part in racing, the technological side is equally important.
“Eighteen months ago when Chrysler was facing bankruptcy, we had this long-term Dodge contract from motorsports. And they’re a significant player from the standpoint of the sport and with them going out could have put us in a no-win situation, meaning we might have had to go in a different direction," Penske said. "It was a critical time and they said, ‘Roger, we’re going to take care of you.’ Fortunately I was able to bridge the gap myself and when they came back, they came back and paid everything that was due to me from the time when they were in bankruptcy and then afforded us even greater (opportunity).
“Pretty amazing when you think about it. It’s kind of an unbelievable story when you think about it. ... When you think about what’s going on, that’s what it’s all about. People don’t realize that this is a pretty good family. People do more for you in this sport than they do anywhere else in any sport.”
In return, Penske rewarded Dodge with the Nationwide title. He hopes to win the Sprint Cup championship in the near future.
Although “The Captain” has achieved great success in open-wheel racing, for whatever reason, his stock car ventures have not been as smooth. However, Penske hopes to develop the same consistency on the Cup side to be a perennial player. And he believes Keselowski can help him get to the next level.
“He’s a committed young man,” Penske said. “I give his mom and dad tremendous credit for bringing him up. He’s a student. He’s a great race car driver. People say he’s aggressive; he’s been to the NASCAR hauler. But he’s a champion. We’ve got a real talent here. He’s a team player, and I think together we can build a great team.”
As the NASCAR community feted Keselowski on Monday night, it was more than just a celebration. It was a cathartic moment for an extended family and it revolved around a driver who has learned valuable lessons in a relatively short time.
“Where do I see myself five years from now? Hopefully winning a lot of races, giving Roger his first Cup championship and sitting at this table in Las Vegas,” Keselowski said. “You can persevere through hard work, determination and a refuse-to-lose spirit. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing in life worth doing is.”