TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — It didn’t take long for Brad Keselowski to earn an unpleasant reputation in NASCAR. He was aggressive on the track, brash and arrogant off of it, and rubbed most of his competitors the wrong way.
Denny Hamlin famously feuded with him through the 2009 season, calling him “a complete moron” while alleging “every driver in the garage that comes up to me says, ‘That guy is a complete whack job.'” When Hamlin made good on a promise to wreck Keselowski in the 2009 Nationwide Series finale, Hamlin received a standing ovation from crews along pit road.
It was Carl Edwards who was fed up with Keselowski the next season, and he returned to the track at Atlanta to deliberately wreck his new rival. The contact had an unintended consequence, though, and Keselowski’s car flew into the fence. Everyone in NASCAR picked sides but most thought “Bad Brad” had it coming.
He didn’t really care what anyone thought.
“It’s not possible to get a Cup ride right now without being aggressive, and without having some swagger in your step,” Keselowski said shortly after the Edwards incident in 2010. “Does that make you a jerk? To some people, yes. To some people, no. It depends on where you’re coming from. If you look at the sport right now, there are no new drivers coming in.
“So whatever I’m doing is working, and it’s gotten me to where I’m at.”
Keselowski was a Sprint Cup champion two seasons later, and after a sub-par 2013 season, he’s furiously charging after a second title. Keeping this run alive was no easy feat, as Keselowski was backed into a must-win situation Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, a track where drivers have very little control over their fate.
He promised his Team Penske crew that he’d win to avoid elimination in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He was coming off a post-race meltdown at Charlotte, where he became a menace behind the wheel after realizing his title hopes had potentially slipped away.
Hamlin had to be restrained from trying to fight him, Matt Kenseth attacked him from behind and it was his Penske crew that rushed to his rescue. Keselowski earned a $50,000 fine from NASCAR, withstood a hailstorm of criticism from his peers, and kept his mouth shut as he went with his team to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for two days of testing last week.
It was there that he vowed his season was not ending at Talladega.
Promising to win is one thing, but delivering is a much taller order. Only Keselowski did it, pulling off the equivalent of a walk-off home run or a two-touchdown rally in the final two minutes of a game.
Team Penske was not in the least bit surprised.
“I don’t think this is the first time we’ve seen Brad step up to the plate,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “Seems like everyone is against him, seems like that fires him up more. He sets his mind to something, he’s going to make it happen.”
It takes a special talent to deliver in high-pressure situations, especially when it seems like an entire industry is against you. There’s only been one other driver in the last decade, Tony Stewart, to climb off the ropes in the face of self-inflicted adversity and he backed up his actions and his words with three championships.
Keselowski is proving to be the current-day Stewart — the driver who does what he wants and refuses to toe the line.
He speaks up when he doesn’t believe something is right, he isn’t politically correct for the sake of staying on the good side of NASCAR or his sponsors, and he takes pride in marching to his own beat.
Keselowski claimed Sunday he doesn’t enjoy the him-against-the-world mentality, and that fighting so many battles is only making his life harder. But he’s keenly aware at how difficult the road to NASCAR’s top series was, and that he scratched and clawed his way into a top-level ride at a time of very little turnover.
He notes that he and now-teammate Joey Logano broke into the Sprint Cup Series at the same time and are the only drivers to make it stick five years later.
“What other drivers came from that era and are successful? There isn’t one. There’s not one that came through those four or five years,” he said. “That’s for good reason. They’ve been ran out of the sport. I’m not going to let that happen. That means sometimes there’s going to be some uncomfortable moments. Certainly there were some uncomfortable moments this week. I hope there’s not any more uncomfortable moments in the future, but there probably will be.”
It helps to have the unwavering support of team owner Roger Penske, who was given the only Cup championship of his career with Keselowski’s 2012 title. He gives his driver latitude to make recommendations for the organization, to confidently be a leader of his race team.
Penske doesn’t care if Keselowski is liked in the garage — and make no mistake, he probably doesn’t crack the top-20 in popularity among his peers — but Penske on Sunday rebuked those drivers as jealous rivals.
It was the public affirmation Keselowski needed to show the world that like him or hate him, he’s not changing and he’s not going anywhere.
“I’d stand up for him anywhere,” Penske said. “Look, I like him. He’s a great driver, we have a long-term relationship with him. If he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that’s OK with me.”
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