A little over two years ago, the NASCAR world was anticipating the arrival of a young rookie loaded with potential. Joey Logano was labeled by many as the next big thing. Towards the end of the 2009 season, however, it was another rookie that had everyone’s attention; Brad Keselowski. That year, Keselowski stunned the world by winning in just his fifth career start, sending Carl Edwards into the catchfence at Talladega. For the casual fan, Keselowski was little known at the time, but everyone knew who he was after this.
His victory also triggered the start of one of the more interesting rivalries we have seen over the past few years, but more on that later. In addition to his upset ‘Dega win, Keselowski racked up a few more top 10s in a limited schedule, most of which came with James Finch’s underfunded No. 09 organization. He ran some occasional Cup races for Rick Hendrick that year, along with a full-time schedule in Nationwide for JR Motorsports. With his connections to Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski was poised to be the heir for the retiring Mark Martin in 2010. Everything was in place for him to elevate his status as one of the top superstars.
The problem is Martin didn’t retire after 2009. He decided to stick around at HMS for a few more years, leaving Keselowski with a predicament. He could compete for wins and championships in the Nationwide series for a couple more seasons, or he could opt to run in the Cup Series in a less attractive ride. As we all know, he chose the latter, signing with Roger Penske where he replaced David Stremme in the No. 12 car. It may have been the best option at the time, but it still was a questionable decision; after all, the team had been on a downward decline for several years that led 2002 Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman to depart for greener pastures over at the new and improved Stewart-Haas Racing.
On the other hand, if someone could return this car to prominence, Keselowski appeared to be a good fit – he had made James Finch a winner and helped elevate JR Motorsports from a mediocre team to a championship contending outfit. With a teammate in 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, who for the most part had been competitive during his tenure with Penske, it looked feasible for Keselowski to live up to the hype he generated throughout 2009.
Now, 48 races since he started driving for Penske, Keselowski has earned just two top 10s, which is also the number of crew chiefs he has had with the team. The potential he displayed early on has started to disappear quickly. In fact, it looks more like a fluke now than anything. Not saying that it is, but why is Keselowski doing so poorly? It is even more mysterious after winning the Nationwide championship just one year ago, giving the Captain his first NASCAR title in any series.
After a dismal campaign on the Cup side last year, a crew chief change was made, with Paul Wolfe moving over from the championship team in Nationwide to replace Jay Guy. With Miller Lite now sponsoring Keselowski in the No. 2 car, this was going to be the year he lived up to previous expectations. After nine races though, it is clear something is amiss, as he hasn’t even come close to a top 10 finish. In his defense, his teammate Busch looks to be going through some struggles despite sitting top 10 in points. Regardless, this has not been the year Keselowski was hoping for.
NASCAR needs Brad Keselowski to do well. Despite his recent struggles, he is still one of the most talked about drivers in the sport. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he has recently been in three different rivalries, all with top drivers. He and Denny Hamlin had a nice feud late in 2009 that culminated with Hamlin spinning him out at Homestead. He and Hamlin’s teammate, Kyle Busch, had on-track altercations that peaked last August at Bristol, where Busch spun him out for the win, causing Keselowski to call Kyle something that rhymes with grass the next night. His biggest battle arguably has come with Edwards, which has seen Edwards intentionally wreck him at Atlanta (where he landed upside down in the catchfence) in an accident very reminiscent of the Talladega incident one year earlier.
A few months later, Edwards punted Keselowski coming to the checkered flag at Gateway, which not only totaled Brad’s car, but damaged about 10 others as well. It doesn’t matter whose side you are on, these rivalries generate debate all across the board. The problem here is most of these incidents listed above have occurred in the Nationwide Series, where Keselowski has had no problem running up front. They have been less common on Sundays because he hasn’t been running well. What good is a grudge between a top 5 driver and one who runs 20th every week?
One can’t help but wonder how patient sponsor Miller Lite will be. The Miller brand has been loyal to Penske for 20 years now, and has had only three winless seasons in that time. Its main competitor, Anheuser Busch, is having a great start to the year with their new driver Kevin Harvick, something that has to make the Miller Brewing Company a little anxious. Keselowski is certainly a marketable driver, but unless it’s Extenze (and NAPA too), no sponsor can be okay with below average finishes. Hopefully, the No. 2 team can turn it around soon, because NASCAR could use a guy like Keselowski competing for wins. On a final note, Keselowski’s best finish this season has been 15th. Here is a look at some surprising drivers whose best finish is higher:
David Gilliand, third
Regan Smith, seventh
Bill Elliott, 12th
Dave Blaney, 13th
If the team does end up turning it around, it doesn’t look to be anytime soon. However, it is a long season, and there have been plenty of times in the past were teams have overcome slow starts to end the year strong. Whether it was Richard Childress Racing in 2009 or Tony Stewart’s tale of two seasons in 2005, a turnaround is possible. Brad Keselowski will try to join that list in 2011. He’d better; otherwise the word bust may start being associated with his name.
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