This weekend saw a changing of the guard of sorts in professional motorsports, as two young drivers finally broke through to score their first career victories in their respective series of competition. Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee, 24-year-old Brad Keselowski began his own Cedar Revolution of sorts, able to finally escape trouble and notch his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory under the light in the No. 88 U.S. Navy Chevrolet – beautifully clad in its dress-whites paint scheme. And only 12 hours later, just north of the border at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, 23-year-old Robert Kubica of Poland recorded his first win in Formula 1 competition, taking the checkers in his BMW-powered Sauber machine.
Yes, this first week of June in professional motorsports was highlighted by Polish Power, with two drivers finally shaking off some poor racing luck while becoming the recipients of some rather good breaks of their own. After several close calls, each found that magic combination of near-perfect circumstances which allowed them to, in effect, break on through to the other side of racing success.
Since taking the wheel of the JR Motorsports entry, Keselowski has been nothing short of impressive. He has run markedly better than Shane Huffman – the driver he replaced midway through last year – and since the 2008 season began has served notice repeatedly he’s ready to join the ranks of the Nationwide Series elite. That’s no small feat, seeing as the majority of the field each week is made up of established Cup drivers driving for established Cup teams. True, the JRM entry is essentially a satellite Hendrick operation; but then again, so is Haas CNC Racing on the Sprint Cup side, and look how they struggle week-in and week-out against the rest of their competition. For what is considered a minor-league sport by most estimates, the Nationwide Series sure is an awfully difficult division to compete in.
But Keselowski has improved by leaps and bounds in his No. 88 ride against top competition, and it looked as if he was finally primed to win his first race a few months ago in Las Vegas. A fuel gamble put him at the point for 12 laps in the waning circuits of the Sam’s Town 300, where he remained until an errant bump along the frontstretch by Mark Martin – driving another JRM car – sent Martin’s former Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards sliding into his current teammate in Keselowski. An uncharacteristic mistake by the 49-year-old had cleared the way for his own victory, much to the chagrin of Keselowski – who was still stewing a couple of weeks following the incident.
Still, whatever the outcome of the Las Vegas race, it seemed to light a fire under Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s young protégé. Not that he wasn’t already motivated, but Keselowski had just proven that given the right position in the proper equipment, he could mix it up with both the defending series champ and its all-time winningest driver. The next three races produced a sixth and two fourth-place showings; momentum had suddenly swung his way.
Eventually proving he was more than just an oval jockey, Keselowski next posted an eighth-place run on the road course in Mexico City this April. At Charlotte, he was poised to contend for the win late when Denny Hamlin took offense to Keselowski racing him as aggressively as he was late in the event. Hamlin swerved at the No. 88 Monte Carlo, crumpling in the left-front fender and compromising the car’s vital aerodynamics and front downforce. The result was a pit-stall brawl that resulted in suspensions and fines for the No. 88 team.
Yet more fuel thrown on the fire for the driver from my home state of Michigan.
With this newfound success and being involved with an owner whose last name is synonymous with the sport, the questions started coming fast and furious for Keselowski this month: “When are you going to win?” Of course, that always seemed to be a tad unfair: he had started less than 50 races in a career that was all of a year and a half old. So, while not exactly Danica Patrick-type expectations and questions were raised, it was also seen as more of a matter of where and when, rather than “if” he would win in the Nationwide Series. With another new kid on the block in Joey Logano starting from the pole position in only his second career start, it helped deflect a little of the attention off Keselowski – if only for a moment.
Logano and Keselowski. The two sound more like a pair of Teamsters from Chicago rather than the future of NASCAR, but their results to date speak volumes for where the two are headed. Much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth a decade earlier, both seem as if they are on converging paths to ascend to the upper echelon of NASCAR in short order. Logano had led 64 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 300 when he was clipped from behind by Greg Biffle, sending him into a languid tank-slapper that seemed to last an entirety down the front straightaway. And while there was a disagreement on pit strategy with crew chief Tony Eury Sr., Keselowski was able to work his way past Clint Bowyer with six laps to go en route to his first win and the prized Gibson guitar, the trophy of choice at Nashville.
“I feel like I paid some dues,” Keselowski said. “To catch that break like I did with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and this Navy Chevrolet, that vindicates it. I’ve got a team that just keeps getting better every week, and I keep getting better every week. I felt like this was just a matter of time.”
Meanwhile, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada – voted by their country as the province most likely to secede – another driver of the Polish persuasion was on his way to the top of the podium, avenging a horrific crash that at first glance would lead one to believe he was perilously close to checking out early at the same track a year earlier. The same could be said for Keselowski in a race at California last season, where he was involved in a violent and fiery head-on collision with the turn 2 wall that saw him riding around the wall with the driver’s side of the car grinding against the pavement. Kubica’s wreck last season saw him suffering little more than a sprained ankle that would sideline him for one event but looked much, much worse on camera.
Kubica didn’t dwell on that Sunday, though – he was too busy “winning.” Able to avoid disaster, he profited from the misfortune of the series’ premier drivers. When Great Britain’s Lewis Hamilton rear-ended the parked Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen at the exit of pit road – ramming the bright red Ferrari instead of the bright white Beamer – you had a feeling it was Kubica’s race to lose.
So, while Krakow, Poland, and Rochester Hills, Mich., may not be intertwined in many people’s minds, this weekend’s two first-time winners of similar background were able to make good on their life’s passion and pursuits, overcoming what had been some downright rotten luck. But both have now won their first race, and are solidly in position to contend for their respective series titles.