Bryan Davis Keith · Wednesday May 4, 2011
To say it’s been a season of extremes for Brian Keselowski three months into 2011 is a gross understatement.
The underdog story of the Daytona 500 was a top 5 finisher in the Gatorade Duels, only to be wrecked out of the Daytona 500 very early in the running. The No. 92 team accomplished the unthinkable in making the 500, only to DNQ for both the next two races at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Then, in the week leading up to Bristol, the elder Keselowski had to pull himself out of his own car, suffering from gallstones that required surgery to remove his gallbladder.
Keselowski, who hates hospitals, described his hesitation before finally visiting one. Upon arrival, “they gave me an ultrasound and said I had gallstones. I asked what I had to do to get rid of them. They kind of laughed me and were like, no, it’s coming out [the gallbladder]. I told them no, you don’t understand, I want to get rid of them. They tell me alright, you can do this this and this. I said alright. By the next day I was like ‘get it out of me!‘”
Forced to skip the weekend’s race, the owner tabbed former Nationwide Series teammate Dennis Setzer to drive the car at Bristol. And the wily veteran did just that, racing the No. 92 into the field for only the second time in 2011. That success was short lived though, as Setzer the next weekend destroyed the team’s race car after a stuck throttle sent him full bore into the wall during practice at Martinsville.
Having dealt with all that, it wasn’t hard to understand the smile on Keselowski’s face Friday morning at the Richmond International Raceway.
“It wasn’t fun at all,” said the driver of his medical benching. “But I don’t mess around when it comes to health. When I know there’s a problem, I’ll take care of it. I couldn’t find a better [replacement] driver than Dennis.”
“It [stepping out] was painful, but I knew what the guys had to work with as a driver, so that made me feel a lot better.”
Setzer’s time behind the wheel did yield useful information for the team, which after falling way off the pace during the race at Bristol used the track time to test as much as possible.
“They found a lot of stuff at Bristol,” noted Keselowski of his team. “We ended up using Bristol as a test session. We bought tires and we wanted to race, but in the end we weren’t fast enough to be competitive. And if you’re not going to be, you might as well try to learn something. Through that race, until he finally parked the car, he found some stuff that they really liked. We took it to Martinsville, we tested it and we liked it quite a bit. We’re still trying to figure it out, but I think we’re getting better.”
It’s a night and day difference between this driver/owner and the one that toiled in the Nationwide Series just a season ago. Because while the struggles with lack of sponsorship and technology are the same, the money situation is not. The Daytona 500 payday put Keselowski square with the house even after last season’s disastrous 2010. Now, instead of running a fleet of start-and-park cars, K-Automotive is picking and choosing races and aiming not to overextend, something Brian knows a thing or two about.
“At the end of 2009, I said I know what I want to do. I’m going to drive, I’m going to move down south, I’m going to do what it takes to run competitively” recalls the driver. “That took a lot of money, and we got in a big hole because I wanted to keep racing. Unfortunately, we got into that hole, and I don’t ever want to do that again.”
“I’m so sick of doing the start-and-park thing” he continued. “I did it because I got in a hole and I had to do it. I don’t like owing people money in the worst way, so if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do.”
“ I’m not saying that I’ll never do it in Cup, I’m just saying I never want to do it in Cup. If push ever came to shove and a week came where I had to do something, and the next week we’ll race and spend whatever we want, fine. But doing the start-and-park thing week after week after week, I don’t want to do it anymore. It tears me up.”
Unfortunately, that improvement Keselowski alluded to didn’t show up in time trials, with the No. 92 the slowest go-or-go-homer and the only car not to qualify for the Cup race at Richmond this past weekend. For while the monetary situation may work better for K-Automotive in the Cup ranks, the fact still remains that in terms of a jump for a driver, there’s few bigger to make than going from Nationwide to Cup.
“I love the Nationwide Series” asserted Keselowski when asked about his take on his former home. “I don’t want to diss Nationwide at all. I wish I could still run it. I feel like I belong over there. But for me, it wasn’t going to work anymore. I don’t see how the teams can make it work.”
When asked, after this season’s purse cuts, what his organization would have to differently to make Nationwide racing work in 2011, Keselowski’s only answer was “to run 10 cars, nine of them start-and-parks.”
“I don’t know how else to make money over there without sponsorship” he continued. “That’s the only way you can survive there without sponsorship.”
Which ultimately leaves this owner/driver between a rock and a hard place. The Nationwide Series is financially an unsustainable home, while the Cup Series is still as competitive as ever, especially for an unsponsored, part-time single car team.
Still, Keselowski is committed.
“We’re a small team, and we’ve got some guys that are pretty new. They’re learning a lot” he said of his team. “NASCAR racing is a lifestyle. It’s hard to get in people’s minds that you can’t just show up and decide you want to be a NASCAR driver. You really have to like it. It’s hard work, it’s long work, and you don’t get paid that much.”
“We’ve always said it was going to take them 6-8 months to really get used to how NASCAR racing is. And if they can’t take it, gone.”
In a nutshell, the existential struggle of the independent Cup team.
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