It was a stroke of genius.
Brad Keselowski’s flawlessly executed move on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway was so effective that Kyle Busch didn’t even know what had hit him.
Busch was glued to Keselowski’s bumper down the backstretch at the 2.66-mile track, and he was already planning the slingshot move he would make in the tri-oval to beat Keselowski to the finish line.
He never got the chance. Suddenly, as the cars began to sweep into the third turn, they separated — all part of Keselowski’s plan.
Keselowski entered the corner high, then shot to the bottom of the track, trying to pull away from Busch and create a bubble of air between the cars.
On countless occasions, he had executed the move in his mind — even dreamed about it — but what happens in theory doesn’t always work in practice.
In this case, however, Keselowski was successful, accruing a multitude of benefits with his second victory of the season. For one thing, Keselowski all but assured himself of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as a wild card if not a member of the top 10.
The winner’s check and the trophy are meaningful, too, but not as important as the intangibles. In winning the way he did, Keselowski added to the reservoir of respect he commands from other drivers in the Cup garage — an asset without which no driver can win a series championship.
Keselowski has always been a problem solver and a student of the sport.
“He’s no dummy — that’s for sure,” Busch said. “He’s got good plate-racing skills. I think he’s got good short track, mile-and-a-half skills, too. Brad should be a title contender each and every year.”
Given the checkered history between Keselowski and Busch, that’s high praise indeed.
Keselowski has always been a hard charger, but in 2010, his first full season in Cup racing, his aggressiveness rankled some of the young established stars, notably Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Busch.
The situation came to a head quickly. In the fourth race of the season, at Atlanta, Edwards was sidelined in a wreck he attributed to overzealousness on Keselowski’s part. After spending nearly half the race in the garage while his car was repaired, Edwards returned to the track and exacted revenge.
With malice aforethought, he knocked Keselowski into the fence at 190 mph.
Keselowski’s car flipped over and slid on its roof into the wall.
Whether publicly or privately, most drivers applauded Edwards’ retaliation as appropriate frontier justice for a punk who needed to be taken down a peg.
NASCAR’s insignificant slap on the wrist — a three-week probation for Edwards — seemed to validate the sentiment in the garage.
Over the past two years, however, the perception of Keselowski has changed dramatically. Keselowski earned a lot of admiration for driving hurt last year, winning two races and qualifying for the Chase after breaking his ankle in a violent crash during a test session at Road Atlanta.
Winning has helped matters, too. Keselowski entered his first full-time Cup season with one victory, at Talladega in 2009, when he held his ground on the final lap, and contact between his car and Edwards’ sent Edwards rocketing into the catchfence in the tri-oval.
With six victories, Keselowski now enjoys the cachet that comes with success, but he has also learned to race and co-exist with his peers.
It’s an absolute in Cup racing. If your fellow drivers don’t respect you, you won’t win a championship. Ever. Period. You won’t get that little bit of racing room when you desperately need it. A driver you’ve slighted will have no compunction about punting you into the wall.
To win a title, you have to be part of the fraternity, and Keselowski at this point has passed the initiation.
Roger Penske, Keselowski’s team owner and one of the most respected figures in all of motorsports, lauded Keselowski’s ability in the post-race press conference. But Penske went farther.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anyone on the grid,” Penske said.
That stamp of approval is overwhelming evidence that Brad Keselowski indeed has arrived.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author