Just 19 races into his Sprint Cup Series career, Brad Keselowski has ruffled feathers and stirred up more controversy than most do in a decade. His aggressive driving style and eagerness to prove his abilities has come into conflict with a number of drivers in the garage. The 26-year-old has had his magical moments, winning his first race by holding his line and sending Carl Edwards flying through the air at Talladega – but over the last six months, the tables have turned. He was intentionally spun by Denny Hamlin during the Nationwide Series finale in Homestead last year, and just two weeks ago Edwards bumped him late in the crash felt around the NASCAR wolrd – one that saw the No. 12 car wind up on its roof.
But despite finding himself the most criticized driver in the garage these days, Keselowski has refused to back down under pressure.
“The biggest thing I take away from this whole experience [is not to change],” he said, looking back at a tumultuous two weeks post-Atlanta that ended with a closed-door meeting Saturday with Edwards, NASCAR, and Jack Roush. “No matter how I came into the Cup side, I could have come in easy or could have came in hard – like I feel I have – no matter how that process went, it was going to take a couple years to be successful.”
“At least doing it the way I’m doing it, I feel like I’ll get the opportunity down the road to prove myself and earn respect. If I had come into this sport really easy, I don’t think I’d be in the sport long enough to have that opportunity.”
Sounds like a guy who could use a little help from a friend. And he’s getting it – from what some might deem the most unlikely of sources.
Given the situation he now finds himself in, Keselowski could not have a better teammate than Kurt Busch. Much like Keselowski, Busch drew the ire of fellow drivers when he first entered the Cup ranks – most notably Jimmy Spencer.
During his rookie season in 2001, Busch raced hard and never gave an inch. Spencer had been racing that way his entire career. Once they got together on the track in Phoenix late in the season, the feud was on.
The two found each other racing for the win during the spring race in Bristol the following year. Then driving for Chip Ganassi, Spencer was having his best run in over three years and could taste his first victory in quite some time. As the two raced hard for the lead, Busch gave him the ol’ Bristol bump-and-run to score the win.
“Last year, he dumps us [at Phoenix], and that was in my mind. I set the stage for it,” Busch said. “He was the one who never forgets, and I never forgot what happened in Phoenix.”
Later that year during the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, the two once again found themselves battling for position. Just as Busch passed Spencer, ‘Mr. Excitement’ spun Busch going into the corner, sending him backwards into the wall. Once out of the car, Busch ran down to confront Spencer on the track, smacking his ass and pointing at Spencer. Busch later called Spencer a “decrepit old has-been.”
The feud finally came to an end at Michigan in 2003. After the race, Busch’s car apparently ran out of gas in front of Spencer’s hauler. Upset with Busch for an on-track incident, Spencer hit the back of Busch’s car, then got out and reportedly punched him in the face through the window. Both drivers were called to the NASCAR hauler, and the Sheriff’s department was involved.
“When you’re a new guy and you’re running into guys, it’s just because that you’re not keeping up with how quick you have to adjust to everything,” Busch said. “And that calms down for everybody once you get more time behind the wheel. Me and Jimmy Spencer just had a clash on our personalities.”
“When everybody comes in this sport, no matter who you are – I was one of them at one time, I raced against Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip – there’s nobody stepping to the plate and telling these kids, these guys, how the sport is run,” added Spencer. “I was fortunate to be told, there’s nothing wrong with pushing and shoving, there’s nothing wrong with racing hard, but it’s how you do it. I think that helped me more than anything learning from those guys and there’s nobody in here doing that.
“These guys are talented racecar drivers, but you don’t come in here with your chest blown out thinking you’re going to kick everyone’s ass because you can – don’t say that till you do it,” Spencer added. “Then when you do it, have someone else tell you. This kid hasn’t done that. Kurt was the same way.”
These days, Busch is a former series champion and he has mellowed into a veteran driver on the track. That is not to say he can still get aggressive and overzealous at times – Busch and Tony Stewart have had a bit of a rivalry over the years.
But with a teammate like Busch in his corner, Keselowski need not turn far for advice. Taking advantage of time during last week’s spoiler test in Talladega, the two Penske Racing drivers talked about the situation Keselowski currently finds himself in.
“I asked him what he would do differently and what he thought of the situation as it might relate to me,” Keselowski said. “There isn’t terribly a large amount I can take from it, because everybody’s situation is different, other than to make sure to continue to respect the fans and understand that an established driver will get the benefit of the doubt. That’s how the sport should work.”
“He’s having an easier time driving the Nationwide cars right now and he’s struggling a little bit trying to find his niche in the Cup car,” Busch said of his teammate. “That will begin to develop for him and won’t be as raw and rough-edged as you see it right now because he’ll have a better time handling the car in the upcoming months.”
“Fortunately, Brad, he’s only 26, but he’s focused on this job and he’s real serious about being a top driver in the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series, so it’s not hard to keep him focused,” crew chief Jay Guy said. “We put that behind us Sunday night after Atlanta. It’s a shame that happened, because we had a really strong day for Penske Racing. We’re moved on and focused on going forward. We have a lot more racing left to go and that’s what we’re focused on. We’re not really focused on a wreck that happened on the track, we’re focused on trying to win races.”
“To me, confidence means that you’ve proved yourself,” Keselowski said following his meeting with NASCAR. “I don’t ever feel like I’ve proved myself. I always feel like every time I get in the race car is a new opportunity to prove myself and, not only that, that I’ve reset from whatever past accomplishments I have so they mean absolutely nothing.”
If Keselowski wants to move past this incident he should keep his nose clean, listening to his teammate, owner and crew chief will eventually put all of this mess behind him.