The 600 goes to the mentally tough

5/25/2013 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- If the first 100 days is a good measuring stick for first-term presidents, then it's good enough for first-term Sprint Cup champions.

All Hail to the Chief Brad Keselowski.

Or should that be Awww Hell?

Probably a little of both at this point.

Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark the 100th day of Keselowski's reign if you begin counting from the Feb. 16 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway that kicked off the 2013 season.

On the All Hail front, he has made a trip to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, led the points standings for a week, ranked in the top three for seven of 11 weeks and been fast at most tracks even though he doesn't have the results to show for it.

On the Awww Hell front, he's been called to the principal's office for a heart-to-heart with chairman Brian France, been docked 25 points for an unapproved rear-end housing, failed to win a points race, called a fellow driver out incorrectly on Twitter and had his All-Star car blow up two laps in.

But through it all, Keselowski has remained mentally strong, keeping his team poised for a run at a second straight title even though he's seventh in the standings.

"I've always felt like, if you're strong enough mentally, that you can damn near overcome anything," the Penske Racing driver said. "That doesn't mean you can jump off this building and fly, but it does mean that you can overcome pain and you can essentially turn off your body's sensitivity to it.

"So, quite honestly, I've spent all of my focus on being as mentally strong as possible once I get behind the wheel. And once you can do that, the rest doesn't matter."

That mental toughness makes Keselowski a legitimate threat Sunday in what amounts to an endurance test. Mental toughness is what typically separates the haves from the have-nots in NASCAR's longest race.

You'd have to put Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne on that list. They've each won the 600 three times, and you have to believe the mental strength they show in running half-marathons and triathlons has something to do with it.

"For whatever reason, longer races, for me, I feel like I've done a little better over the years," Kahne said."It gives you more time to work on your car, gives you more time to kind of fine tune and get it as perfect as you can for those last 50 to 100 miles.

"There's times when you wish the race was over because it gets so long. But for whatever reason, the 600 has always been one of my favorite races."

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin would be on that list, as well, even though he has never won the 600. He won a 2010 race 10 days after undergoing ACL surgery and returned from a compression fracture in his lower back this year to finish second at Darlington in his first full race back.

That's mentally strong.

Hamlin might be more driven than normal now because he needs to win a race or two to put himself in position for a wild-card berth into the Chase after missing four races. He admittedly took a chance he normally wouldn't in qualifying to start up front.

"For me, it's going to take some wins and some really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "That's what we're here for."

Three-time 600 winner Jeff Gordon, 2000 winner Matt Kenseth and 2010 winner Kurt Busch -- starting second -- belong among the haves, as well. They look forward to the mental challenge it takes to drive 100 miles farther than in any other event, rather than dreading it as some do.

Kenseth calls it his favorite event of the year.

"A lot goes on," he said. "You have to pay attention for a long time and really keep up with the adjustments."

The winners in this event read like a Hall of Fame list more than perhaps any outside a race at Darlington. That was apparent Wednesday when winning the 600 was listed among the great accomplishments of 2014 HOF selection Dale Jarrett.

"You can see that and what people think of race winners from this event," Keselowski said. "They think of them as people that have a spot potentially in the Hall of Fame and receive some kind of accolades from winning this event.

"So that signifies, at least to me, how big a win this would really be for me or any driver and how important this event can be to your career."

Keselowski doesn't have a win in the 600. He also doesn't have much history in the race. But in three starts, he has a pole from 2011 and finished fifth a year ago.

He'd like nothing more than to jump-start his run at another title with a win Sunday.

"I feel like we've been very, very fast and very under the radar because we haven't, one, qualified well, or, two, executed in the race," he said. "If there was a right-side seat in my car and you rode with me through the last two or three mile-and-a-halves, you'd go, 'Damn, we're the fastest car out here.'"

But winning the 600 takes more than the fastest car. It takes great pit strategy, with more stops because of the race length, the patience to know that a fast car in the daylight hours when the race begins doesn't guarantee a fast car at night and strong communication with those on the pit box when it comes to adjustments.

Keselowski has all of those, even though crew chief Paul Wolfe is serving the last of his two-race suspension from points races.

So do all the other drivers mentioned above in the list of haves.

The difference between Keselowski and the others is he's still being assessed as a first-time champion -- whether you consider Sunday officially his 100th day in office or not.

"I would certainly like to be in a better position than where I'm at right now, and I would like to see the sport continue to grow and be stronger than where it is right now," said Keselowski, sounding like the politician mixing in his own goals and hopes for the sport. "It's hard to really say that I'm happy with where I'm at because I'm not, but I'm not unhappy, either."

Keselowski isn't completely happy because he hasn't won the big races -- the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 -- that define careers.

He isn't completely happy because he knows he hasn't gained the respect of the entire garage. When Kenseth was asked what he thought of Keselowski as a leader, the 2003 champion joked, "If he's called any meetings to order, I wasn't invited to them."

"Brad is very, obviously opinionated and he definitely has his own ideas and I'm sure some of his ideas are shared by some, not sure by all necessarily," Kenseth continued. "I don't know if he's a leader of the drivers."

Keselowski understands. He also understands 100 days isn't long enough to judge a championship driver any more than a president.

It's just a step.

"I'm a big believer, by the way, that anything you really want, you need to go out and really reach for it," he said. "And I'm the type of guy that reaches sometimes a little further than what I have for length in my arms.

"But if I could win another championship, win some more big races, do some other great things, certainly that goal of being a leader of the garage is obtainable."

A little bit of All Hail.

And a little bit of Awww hell.

On Sunday, Keselowski has a chance to set the agenda for his next 100 days.