SPARTA, Ky. — Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have a lot more in common than you might think — when it comes to their ability to deal with crisis.
The most consistent, obvious characteristic of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports teams that won five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010 was their resilience. Whether it was overcoming a blown tire to win the Brickyard 400 in 2006 or overcoming a 39th-place finish in the first Chase race that same year, Johnson’s teams seemed all but impervious to calamity.
Led by calculating crew chief Chad Knaus, the 48 teams were problem solvers. When something went wrong, they went about the business of dealing with the mess in a methodical, systematic, panic-free manner. Attention to detail was their hallmark.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team doesn’t have a championship — yet — but, as with Johnson’s title teams, Keselowski and his crew are at their best when the chips are down, and Keselowski’s dander is up.
Last August, Keselowski broke his ankle when a brake failure in a high-speed corner led to a violent crash during a test session at Road Atlanta. Hobbling to his car on crutches, Keselowski won at Pocono the following weekend.
His next three races produced a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan and another win at Bristol, a stretch that propelled him into the Chase as a wild card.
Keselowski’s weekend at Kentucky this year was injury-free, but it started inauspiciously all the same. The driver of the Blue Deuce was up to speed and completing his first lap of practice on Friday when Juan Pablo Montoya pulled onto the track in front of him.
Montoya says he gave Keselowski room. Keselowski didn’t see it that way. He didn’t slow down either, until he tangled with Montoya and hit the wall. In short order, his team had to ready a backup car, the short-track Dodge Charger Keselowski drove at Martinsville in last year’s Chase race.
“I don’t like being pushed around, and I felt like what happened on the racetrack, that someone was pushing me around, and I don’t like that,” Keselowski said. “I hate that. I can’t stand it, and I won’t stand for that. I don’t know if that creates a level of desire that makes us better.”
Keselowski’s driving in Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 may not have been bellicose, but the desire and focus were certainly there. Keselowski won his series-best third Cup race of the season going away.
“Certainly there’s always that little bit extra you get when you’re fired up,” Keselowski said. “A lot of people would say that’s a bad thing in a race car. The adrenaline’s the worst thing that can happen to you, because you don’t focus as well.”
In Keselowski’s case, it’s not a bad thing. The extra boost seems to heighten his focus — different from Johnson, whose outward calmness under pressure has been a trademark of his championship seasons.
But in much the same way Johnson has melded with the analytical Knaus, Keselowski has bonded with crew chief Paul Wolfe, a canny tactician who has his driver’s ear and his confidence.
“One thing about all the guys on the Miller Lite team is it seems like we’re able to find another level to work when it comes to adversity,” Wolfe said after the win at Kentucky. “I think you see that with the driver as well, as you look back to last summer when Bad Brad had a broken foot.Â
“And we were able to take that–and I don’t know if he thrives off of that or what–but it seems like, when some people might think we’re down and out, we’re able to find a whole other level to compete and find ourselves in Victory Lane.”
Much like the 48 teams, Keselowski and Wolfe thrive in crisis. And when Keselowski’s back is up, he’s doubly dangerous.
So it might be a good idea for other drivers to give Keselowski a wide berth in the Chase this year.
Rile him up, and he just might win it.