A lot of drivers who have made it to the upper levels of NASCAR today have no idea what driving a subpar ride feels like.
Brad Keselowski is not one of those wheelmen.
Before scoring his big break with JR Motorsports, Keselowski’s rides at the top of NASCAR consisted of a family-owned ride with his dad’s truck team and a limited tenure with Keith Coleman Racing, which had to shut itself down due to a lack of sponsorship. Before taking over the No. 88 late in 2007, Keselowski had scored only one top-10 finish in 62 career starts in NASCAR’s top divisions.
But that experience is something of great value to Keselowski. Because, in his words, “You don’t learn a lot winning races.”
As Keselowski entered the weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway attempting to make his Sprint Cup debut for Hendrick Motorsports, it’s hard to believe how ready this young gun actually was for stepping onto stock car racing’s biggest stage.
Sure, Keselowski had driven in the Cup Series’ CoT a great deal. Coming off his participation in a two-day tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Keselowski estimated that he turned in at least 500 laps of testing in a Cup car throughout the season for HMS. He also had the benefit of having recently been in the Cup garage under race conditions, having practiced Casey Mears’s No. 5 Chevrolet in practice sessions at last week’s race at Talladega.
Said Keselowski, “This is by far the most comfortable I’ve felt going up a level.”
But more than anything, the 24-year-old has perhaps more perspective than any other prospect rising through the ranks of NASCAR today. He’s been without sponsorship. He’s run in the back without a prayer of scoring a win. And given the economy, he’s truly appreciative of his current home in the Hendrick camp as a result. Keselowski likens his early career background to that of teammate Jimmie Johnson, both in terms of where he’s come from and what he’s been through to make it to the big time.
That perspective has translated into a great deal of confidence. Keselowski’s performance in the Nationwide Series this season has seen him go from prospect to title contender. A shot at the Cup Series full-time is no longer a question of if, but of when.
The youngster doesn’t mince words when it comes to how ready he’d be for Saturday’s race and the Cup starts to come.
“This is for me,” he said. “I can do this.”
That’s not to say Keselowski wasn’t feeling the pressure of trying to race his way into the Bank of America 500, which featured one of the most competitive entry lists seen this season. In describing what he thought would be the hardest part of his weekend, Keselowski said he was more nervous than anything about having to rush immediately from practicing his Nationwide Series car to strapping into his No. 25, knowing full well that the first lap would have likely determined whether or not he debuted as a Cup driver in Charlotte.
Even more nerve-wracking, though, was what bit him in the end: the weather. Keselowski’s No. 25 team had no owner points going into qualifying Thursday night, meaning if the rain fell, they would not race.
“The whole rain situation makes it more stressful, which I didn’t think was possible,” said Keselowski shortly before qualifying was canceled.
Unfortunately, wet weather robbed him of a chance to make the field on speed. But after struggling for years to simply make the field and finish races, it’s hard to believe that that stress will get to this driver. Keselowski knows he’ll get another chance in the No. 25 before the year is complete; and after the pain of struggling under the radar, that’ll be more than enough for him.