Champion. It is a name that can only be achieved by certain individuals that devote their lives to earning such a title. Compared to racing names such as Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, few others have demonstrated that level of devotion. In 2012, 28-year-old Brad Keselowski added his name to the list as the newest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
For many, Keselowski is probably an unfamiliar name. It is no surprise considering he is in just his third full-time year of Cup Series competition.
He has been around racing his whole life with his father, Bob Keselowski, owning his own race team and being a former NASCAR Truck Series driver. Both Brad and his brother showed great interest in becoming a race car driver, but their father only had enough money to try and fund one of their careers. Because of Brad’s immense dedication and performance, his father gave him the opportunity of a life time; Brad would not let him down. He went through his career with one goal in mind of: “I don’t want to be a race car driver. I want to be a championship race car driver.”
When Keselowski first jumped onto the scene as a Nationwide Series driver, he was already turning heads by performing well with a smaller team. One of those heads he turned was that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who would eventually hire Keselowski to drive his Nationwide Series car. From there he won multiple races, but not without making a few enemies along the way. Run-ins Cup Series’ veterans Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, gave Keselowski the persona of a hard nose, aggressive racer and earned him the nickname “Bad Brad.”
He showed that he was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the best and that he was not going to get pushed around by the Cup Series racers. That mentality carried over when Penske hired him to drive in the Cup Series. It was a mentality that caused Keselowski to get into trouble every now and then, but also allowed him to learn. His maturity and learning curve started to show half way through last season and into this season. He began winning races and speaking as a true champion, never being afraid to express his opinion. Now he has the trophy to back it up.
Keselowski came into the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 20 point lead over the five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson. A comfortable point lead, but not one that he could take lightly. Johnson has been a championship contender for almost his whole career in the Cup Series, finishing outside the top five in points for the first time last year when he finished sixth. He experienced just about every way to win and lose a championship, so a 20 point deficit was nothing he could not handle.
With Johnson’s reputation as the greatest NASCAR driver of the modern area, it was known that Keselowski and Johnson would be fighting for the championship until the last lap, similar to what happened last year when Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart tied for the point lead at the end of the final race (championship going to Stewart due to having more wins than Edwards). Even with Keselowski only having to finish 15th or better to clinch the championship, Johnson was not making it easy on him.
With the use of pit strategy, Johnson was able to take the lead at a point during the race, while Keselowski was further back in the pack. During this point of the race Johnson had actually taken the point lead away from Keselowski. However, once Johnson pitted on Lap 214, his hopes for winning a sixth championship began to vanish. A lug nut was left loose, causing Johnson to lose more valuable positions by coming back down pit road to fix the problem. On Lap 226, his problems escalated by suffering a drive line problem, parking him in the garage for the rest of the race.
At this point Keselowski’s spotter came over the radio telling him of Johnson’s misfortune, allowing Keselowski to cruise to his first championship and solidifying himself as a future star, if not legend, in the sport. This championship alone holds milestones that few have been able to achieve.
He has joined an elite group, including only Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, as the third driver to win a championship in three or less seasons. It took Keselowski 125 starts to win the championship, which is the fewest since Jeff Gordon (93 starts) in 1995. But one of Keselowski’s biggest accomplishments that others were not able to achieve is winning a championship for “The Captain,” Roger Penske. Top tier drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have tried, but were only able to deliver wins. Keselowski gets the satisfaction of being able to bring Penske his first ever NASCAR championship in the Nationwide Series in 2010 and now his first ever Cup Series championship as well, both accomplished with Crew Chief Paul Wolfe (first driver/crew chief combination to do so).
Keselowski is a name that should not be overlooked. Just as quickly as Johnson caught up to Gordon in competing for who will be the first to win their fifth title, Johnson may find himself in the same scenario with Keselowski on who will be the first to win their sixth title.