JOLIET, Ill. — Throughout his NASCAR career, Brad Keselowski has defied conventional wisdom.
Brash and outspoken from the day he entered the sport, Keselowski, 28, drove aggressively from the outset, eschewing the traditional approach of treating your elders with deference as you learn the intricacies of racing at NASCAR’s highest level.
Keselowski had his share of run-ins in the early going. On the track, he was a moving target for Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards. Off the track, he took his share of broadsides, too.
His first full season as a Sprint Cup Series driver for Penske Racing, in 2010, was a season derailed. The feud between Edwards and Keselowski came to a head, with Edwards sending Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge upside-down into the frontstretch wall at Atlanta in the fourth race of the year.
Though Keselowski won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship that year, his Cup effort was fraught with failure. The third-generation driver from Michigan posted his only two top-10 finishes of the season — back-to-back 10ths at Martinsville and Talladega — in the 32nd and 33rd races on the schedule.
In 2011, Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s champion crew chief in the Nationwide Series, joined him at the Cup level, but for the first half of the season, Keselowski continued to flounder. Though he won at Kansas in race No. 13, he was 23rd in the standings and absent from the Chase conversation 19 events into the season.
Then came the accident that punctuated Keselowski’s season and radically altered the perception of the young driver throughout the Cup garage. Testing at Road Atlanta on Aug. 4, Keselowski went off track in a high-speed corner when his brakes failed and broke his left ankle.
The injury coincided with a remarkable turnaround. Hobbling to the starting grid on crutches four days later, Keselowski won at Pocono to start a string of four straight top-three results that included a second-place run at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan and a victory at Bristol, as Wolfe began to excel in his return visits to many of the Cup tracks.
Ultimately, Keselowski qualified for the Chase and edged five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the fifth spot in the final standings. As Keselowski accumulated points on the track, he also accrued respect in the garage and established himself as one of the elite talents in the sport.
In outrunning Johnson in Sunday’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski sent a message to the rest of the Chase field that he’s ready to become only the second 20-something in 14 years to win a Cup championship.
Is it feasible for the lone Dodge in the Chase to win head-to-head against the five-car armada of Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick affiliate Tony Stewart? Can Keselowski do over 10 races what he accomplished in the Chase opener?
Yes, it’s possible. Keselowski entered the sport much as Kurt Busch did. Busch, who won the 2004 title at age 28, was brash, confident and supremely talented, as is Keselowski. Busch was a thinker. He and crew chief Jimmy Fennig developed a winning road map in the first Chase, based on saving their test sessions for the end of the season, when they really counted.
Likewise, Keselowski is an elite driver. He’s also a student of the sport. He examines the minutiae of past races to develop his approaches to the current ones. Keselowski is calm under pressure and motivated by adversity — a hallmark trait of five-time champion Johnson.
Keselowski has been careful not to make enemies as the Chase approaches. Yes, there was the incident with Kyle Busch on an oily track at Watkins Glen this year. And, yes, Busch, who sorely needed the win at the Glen to make the Chase, let Keselowski know he was there in Sunday’s race.
A lap after Keselowski passed Busch for position, Busch drove harder than he needed to into Turn 1, snuggled up to Keselowski’s rear bumper, forced the Blue Deuce up the track and retook the spot.
That aside, Keselowski doesn’t have other drivers gunning for him in the Chase this year, and that’s by design.
As to his support group, Wolfe is one of the brightest crew chief s in the garage, and he and Keselowski are a perfect pairing. Wolfe already has distinguished himself as a premier strategist, and his Dodge engines typically get the best fuel mileage in the series — an important advantage given that several Chase races likely will come down to fuel strategy.
To win the championship, Keselowski will have to improve his performance at the three Chase tracks where he’s never posted a top 10 — Dover, Texas and Homestead — but the speed he showed at Chicagoland suggests that he and Wolfe can accomplish that.
Is Keselowski the favorite to win the title? Hardly. As a five-time champ, Johnson still deserves that distinction. Nevertheless, Keselowski announced at Chicagoland that any driver who hopes to be champion this year will have to beat the driver of the No. 2 Dodge head-to-head.
Keselowski absolutely, positively will not beat himself.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author