“Sponsors want that brand name, [a] Carl Edwards, to do all the shows. Well, you can find another driver and build another hero.”
This past Sunday, the stock car racing community was reminded of this in spectacular fashion, as a Nationwide Series regular gave a new definition to Cupwhacker: He whacked the Cup Series field, scoring a dramatic win at Talladega that saw him overpower three of the sport’s most talented stars in Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman.
And with a last-lap pass, Brad Keselowski demonstrated the truth behind Bliss’s words… if they’re willing to give a young driver a chance, car owners really can build another hero.
Because heroic is certainly a word that can be used to describe the driver that Earnhardt Jr. took a chance on less than two seasons ago. He’s found his way in NASCAR the old-fashioned way, driving in a dilapidated ride for Keith Coleman Racing before earning his one-off deal in a Germain Racing truck entry that resulted in a near-win at Memphis… and a career-changing offer to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 88 car. He’s proven to be media-savvy and marketable, yet able to keep an edge (listen to his post-race comments on the dangers of racing at Talladega). He’s certainly proven to be talented behind the wheel. And perhaps most importantly, having worked his way through racing’s ranks rather than going the phenom route from zero to Cup, there is a fire burning in this prospect that isn’t seen every day.
It’s not every day you’ll see a driver willing to wreck a true superstar to win a Cup race he had no business even contending for. And that’s not the first time Keselowski has demonstrated convincingly that he is a racer, not just a driver. This is the same driver who, in the heat of a Nationwide Series title chase, came from the back of the pack and stalked Clint Bowyer well enough in the closing laps last August to steal a win at Bristol, Bowyer’s best race track. This is the same driver who was willing to play bumper tag with Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing’s vaunted No. 20 Toyota at Charlotte last May… and who had his crew fired up enough to charge their opponent’s pit box after Hamlin’s cheap shot at Keselowski cost the youngster what would have been his first Nationwide Series win. And this is the first driver who ever managed to last a full season driving as the protégé of the sport’s most popular figure.
What more could race fans ask for in a driver? Fiery, competitive, talented… and well-aware of how fortunate he is to be racing at NASCAR’s top levels.
And this guy is a regular in the Nationwide Series. While everybody in the media spent this week gushing over Keselowski as a newly-emerging star, and everyone who tuned into SportsCenter and other sports outlets this week were asking “Who is this guy?,” eager to learn more about the David that took down Goliath, there is a select sect of race fans out there who’s gotten to see Keselowski making waves on the track for years… the few who’ve followed the Nationwide Series in recent years. And when I say few, I mean few.
During an appearance on the Carey and Coffey show last week, I was reminded about how the Nationwide Series’ standalone races have, despite having characters such as Keselowski in the field, utterly flopped with regard to attendance. They didn’t do well at Loudon. They didn’t do well at Martinsville. And, sans Kentucky, they don’t do as well as they should at Nashville, St. Louis or Milwaukee either.
But after seeing the events at Talladega this past weekend that featured both a thrilling Nationwide Series race and a Series regular scoring a tremendous upset, I’ve got to ask race fans… why is this the case? Why aren’t we watching the Nationwide Series?
Sure, there are all the problems stemming from Cup oversaturation and horrible TV coverage. But there are too many drivers out there that race fans should be embracing to let us turn our backs on this series. Keselowski is just an example of the competitive spirit that the Nationwide Series regulars constantly bring to the track. What kind of race fan wouldn’t want to see drivers taking on the best in the business without intimidation, such as when David Stremme put the chrome horn to point leader Bowyer last season at Nashville, or this year at the same track when Kelly Bires drove under Edwards like he was standing still? What kind of race fan can’t get excited seeing personalities such as Kenny Wallace, Brendan Gaughan and Jason Leffler racing week after week?
And after seeing what Brad K did at Talladega, what kind of race fan can’t get excited about seeing prospects such as Erik Darnell, Marc Davis and Peyton Sellers all getting their shots at making a name for themselves, taking to the track with nothing to lose?
Just as Keselowski thanked all the race fans out there who were at Talladega to witness one of the most exciting races in recent memory, I’d like to say thanks to Brad as we head towards the Richmond weekend. Thank you for reminding me why I cover the Nationwide Series. And thank you for reminding me and all stock car racing fans of the caliber of driver that make the Nationwide Series the nation’s second-most popular form of motorsports.
I can only hope that after seeing what the Nationwide Series’ competitors can do Sunday, race fans tune in tonight to see what else they can do. Who is the next Brad Keselowski? What does stock car racing have to look forward to in its future?
I’ll know, because I’ll be tuned in Friday night. And here’s hoping a lot more race fans will be able to say the same.