For one night, redemption for Brad Keselowski
It had been more than a year since the last time Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag in the Sprint Cup series. In that time, he'd won a championship and become the breakout media star NASCAR so desperately needed. Yet in a season that should have been his opportunity to prove that he was here to stay, Keselowski struggled. Between bad luck, a new manufacturer and a handful of badly missed setups, the defending champion left Richmond on the outside looking in. If for only one night, his win Saturday night at Charlotte provided a sense of both hope and of redemption.
In 2012, Brad led 47 laps en route to a win at Dover International Speedway. It was his second victory in that year's Chase for the Sprint Cup and his fifth overall for the year. The win propelled him into 1st place and served notice that the young upstart was a legitimate title contender. He had five top ten finishes over the remaining seven races and claimed the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead. His coronation came during a Miller Lite-fueled interview on SportsCenter that showed a youthful exuberance fans could relate to. Add in Keselowski's well-documented Twitter account (and its tens of thousands of new followers after Daytona) and NASCAR had a recipe for connecting with a demographic that finally had someone to call their own.
The legendary SportsCenter interview from Homestead
Keselowski carried that momentum into 2013 with a string of solid finishes. While the defending champion didn't win a race, he had seven top ten finishes over the first eight races. Sitting third in points he seemed like a lock to make the 2013 version of the Chase and it was only a matter of time before the Michigan native would go on another string of victories.
It was not to be. That ninth race in Richmond ended in a disappointing 33rd place finish, eight laps off the pace. He went on to two other sub-30 finishes in the next three races and dropped all the way to tenth in points. While still Chase-eligible at that point, he sat in a precarious position without a win. Over the next nine events he had two top five finishes (a fifth at Dover and a fourth at New Hampshire) and four outside of the top 20. His best chance for a win came the following week at Watkins Glen where he elected to follow Kyle Busch to the finish instead of bumping Rowdy out of the way on the last lap. He was never remotely close again and another pair of sub-30 finishes at Bristol and Atlanta ensured that Keselowski missed the Chase when the field was set after Richmond.
Before Charlotte, every break seemed to go the wrong way. NASCAR hit the team with points penalties twice, first for “unapproved parts” after Texas and later for being too low post-race at Dover. While the largest penalties were overturned on appeal, the accusations did little to help the team's confidence. At Darlington he had a car capable of passing virtually anyone in the field but was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and a wreck forced the Blue Deuce to pit for extensive repairs. A similar wreck at the Bristol night race- one that Keselowski has won in the past and was in contention to win again- ended in a 30th place finish. A blown engine followed one week later, the only engine he's lost all season long. Bad luck didn't account for all of the poor finishes but it certainly played its part.
There was little reason to believe that this would be the weekend that the defending champion would find his mojo. Since deferring to Busch at the Glen, Keselowski has one top ten and three sub-30th place finishes. That lone top ten was a seventh place finish at Chicago where several teams (including his teammate, Joey Logano) had engine troubles resulting from the extended rain delay. Without those cars dropping out, he may well have been 0-for coming into this weekend.
In addition to the poor finishes, Keselowski was coming off a weekend to forget at Kansas. He drove the Penske Nationwide car on Saturday and was contending for a possible win. Late in the race, he found himself turned by Kyle Busch- a driver he's feuded with in the past and who admitted he had no intention of giving Keselowski an inch on the track. Brad did little to hide his frustration, asking at the following morning's driver meeting if wrecking a competitor fell afoul of NASCAR's new 100% rule. Despite leading laps early, Keselowski's luck turned once again and he sputtered to a 17th place finish by race end.
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Brad's past Cup history at Charlotte didn't provide much hope either. He had only one prior top ten finish, a fifth place finish at the 2012 spring race. He had an average start of 21st and an average finish of 18th- not exactly lighting the world on fire improving his position. He'd finished on the lead lap in only half of those races despite having only one DNF (this year's spring race at the track). There are plenty of tracks left on the schedule where the odds would seem much better for Keselowski to pick up a win in 2013.
But there were glimpses early on that this might be the place where Brad would get off the schneid. He was tenth after the first practice; not spectacular, bur certainly an improvement over his recent results. He slipped some with a 23rd place qualifying run but rebounded to place third in both the second and third practice sessions. If he could manage to get track position early on, the car seemed to have the speed necessary to keep it.
Over the first half of the race, Keselowski steadily moved forward. Without many caution flags to work with, Brad had to do it the old fashioned way by passing cars on the track. He was inside the top 15 going into the second series of pit stops but the bad luck that's followed him all year struck again and he found himself near where he started when the cycle of pit stops ended. Yet Keselowski perservered and began climbing through the field once again. A timely four tire call by crew chief Paul Wolfe gave Brad the advantage he needed to track down Kasey Kahne (another driver with more than his share of ill luck this season) and eventually win the race.
Watching Brad's post-race interview you could see how much this meant to him. The smile stretching from ear to ear punctuated his every word and there was no doubt that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He even showed a glimpse of his sense of humor, getting in a thinly veiled jab at Kyle Busch by praising Kahne as, “Someone you can race against.” He wasn't in the championship Chase but for this night, he was back in his element and a winner once again. It was exactly what both the driver and team needed in a moment where they needed them the most.
Like any other racer, Keselowski's performance depends in large part on his confidence. Brad's took a beating after a series of poor finishes earlier this year. With that aura restored, he'll be a genuine threat to win multiple more races. After all, his first career win came at Talladega- where the Sprint Cup cars will run twice a year and teammate Logano is once again running near the front.
A solid string of races to end the year also made Keselowski a contender in the next year's championship. Brad's 2012 title run came in large part thanks to the roll he got on at the end of 2011. He had four top five finishes over the ten race Chase and finished the year fifth in the final standings. While he wasn't ready for the moment then, the success gave him the confidence that he could indeed run with NASCAR's best. That confidence led directly to his breakout season in 2012 where he won five races in addition to the championship. The Charlotte win likewise propelled him to a 2014 season that saw Keselowski win races and make the Chase. Indeed, he owed that redemption to a single night in Charlotte one year before.