Brad Keselowski a complex man
CONCORD, N.C. -- Brad Keselowski sized up his competition, an 18-year-old college freshman ready to go mano-a-mano with the Chase leader for eight laps of computerized racing on the world's largest HD television screen.
"Josh is my Jimmie Johnson for the day," Keselowski said of Josh Bralley, who made the finals of Tuesday's competition promoting the Oct. 13 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "If I can't beat him, I'll just wreck him."
That's Keselowski. Always saying something to get a reaction.
He didn't beat Bralley, by the way. He wrecked and wrecked and then wrecked again.
But the Penske Racing driver was entertaining as usual, and likely picked up a new fan in Bralley.
NASCAR fans who are watching on TVs at home three races into the Chase are still trying to figure out what to think of this kid 28-year-old driver from Michigan, who three years after turning Carl Edwards upside down for his first Sprint Cup victory is turning the NASCAR world upside down.
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Others are wondering if Keselowski winning two of the first three Chase races was a fluke, if he can stay in the championship hunt with heavyweights Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart over the final seven races.
Others are wondering if there is depth in him past tweeting from his car during a red-flag stoppage at the Daytona 500 and walking onto the stage at last year's Champion's week luncheon wearing jeans while everyone else wore a suit.
Others are wondering if this kid that Stewart says "is still kind of goofy" has earned enough respect from fellow drivers to survive.
Well, let me help. Keselowski is goofy, but he's the real deal when it comes to wheeling a car. It's not a fluke he's in this position and he's almost certain to be a factor this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN)and the rest of the way.
Now let me tell you a few things that may help you figure him out, decide if you want to pull for him or against him.
He has a new woman in his life. She thinks a lot like him, is smart and brings balance to his world. She's not dead weight, as Stewart had to lose a year ago to win his third title. The week she arrived in North Carolina, Keselowski's Truck Series team won its first race.
But there are no romantic ties. The woman is Keselowski's sister, Dawn. Keselowski calls her his Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, referring to the sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who runs the Nationwide Series program for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Keselowski watched how Earnhardt-Miller helped Earnhardt's career when he drove for JR Motorsports, so he dragged his sister from her job of 16 years to help run his truck team.
This is significant for many reasons. It shows the importance of family to Keselowski, whose family grew up racing together. It also shows the importance of surrounding yourself with people you trust.
"I don't know Brad's sister personally, but from my relationship with Dale it's built on trust as kids having each other's back because we were put in situations to survive and lean on each other to do so," Earnhardt-Miller said. "I have to believe that for Brad, as for any celebrity, the trust factor is so important.
"I'm sure, like Dale, he feels confident that she will look after his interest as her own. Having someone he trusts completely allows him to concentrate on the racing."
Concentrate Keselowski has. Since sis agreed to join him a couple of months ago he has only one finish outside the top 10 -- 30th at Bristol after starting second. He has an amazing 12 top-10s over the past 13 races, so if you think he's not consistent enough to keep this going for 10 races, think again.
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"You're just looking for someone who has your back," Keselowski said of his sister. "I have other people who have my back, but it's different when it's family. I feel like there was a big uptick in my performance when she started to help me out, so I feel really good about that."
Dawn makes Keselowski feel good about a lot of things, which is important when you're battling for a title.
"I keep him positive," she said. "He's got everything he's ever wanted in life. I just remind him of that. No one can understand you as much as the person that grew up with your thinking."
You probably also didn't know that Keselowski is sentimental. Just because he wrecked a few people early in his career doesn't mean he doesn't have a big heart.
"When we were growing up he cut a piece out of the carpet we were getting rid of to keep it," Dawn said.
"Because he grew up with it," Dawn said. "He likes keeping things that mean things to him."
You probably did know Keselowski was aggressive. His first win at Talladega came with great controversy because he drove through Edwards' car, sending it airborne into the catch-fence, to take the checkered.
He ticked off Hamlin and a few others the rest of that season in both the Nationwide and Cup series.
But Keselowski knows when to curtail that aggression for the sake of a good finish. He also knows fans, in general, appreciate aggression. He seems almost offended that some drivers will hang around the back at Talladega hoping to avoid trouble.
"I don't plan to play defense," Keselowski said.
That alone is enough to appreciate the Miller Lite driver. This explanation may help you more.
"Let's [say] you have a 50 percent chance to survive the wrecks if you race up front all day, and a 60 percent chance of avoiding the wrecks if you race at the back all day," Keselowski said. "So you know as a competitor that you maybe have a 10 or 20 percentage better chance of surviving the day if you drive in the back all day.
"But to do that is a slap in the face of those that make the sport possible, which is the fans," he said.
It also goes against Keselowski's logic of racing, basically hoping drivers ahead of him wreck.
"I guarantee you everybody that runs in the back at Talladega is running around going, 'Man, I hope they f------ wreck,' " he said. "That's what they're thinking. Cause that's the only thing that makes sense."
Keselowski isn't afraid to speak his mind, if you haven't figured that out. He's also not afraid to be himself, which isn't easy in a sport in which Stewart gets chastised for jokingly goosing the wife of a good friend.
"The traits that have gotten me to where I'm at now have been the key to my success, so why would I change those or go back on them?" Keselowski said.
And if you haven't figured this out, Keselowski is good on almost any size or shape track. Seven of his nine wins have come at different tracks, including short tracks, superspeedways, intermediate tracks and a road course.
Two have come at Talladega, where Keselowski outsmarted Kyle Busch with a slick move on the final lap earlier this year.
"That was probably a one-time thing," Keselowski said with a smile. "You're always glad to be that one-time thing. You'd rather be a rule-maker or a trend-setter and then have someone else break it than have it be nothing at all."
You may not have figured Keselowski out by now, but his opponents have.
"I was a little nervous about him when he came in," Stewart said of Keselowski crashing drivers. "He's matured a lot. He's pulled the reins back a little bit and races people differently, but he still gets the job done."
And Keselowski has been able to do it without being stamped out of a mold.
"Look at him," Ryan Newman said. "He's kind of happy-go-lucky Brad. He's different."
What's different about Keselowski likely will make him a champion one day. It could make him a champion this season.
He just has to avoid days like the one he had on Tuesday.
"Wish I could have understood a little better what I was doing, because I didn't do a very good job," Keselowski said. "I kept wrecking."