Race Weekend Central

To Hell & Back: Brian Keselowski Goes from S&P Owner to Daytona 500 Darling

Thursday, February 17 was all a blur for Brian Keselowski, a single day that, for at least one weekend, put the oft-forgotten older brother of superstar Brad Keselowski on the same playing field. This Thursday saw a Speedweeks miracle unfold, as the former Nationwide Series regular took a five-year-old Evernham Motorsports car, built on nickels and dimes, and turned it into the most unlikely Daytona 500 berth since Kirk Shelmerdine broke into the field five years earlier.

Even in the days following his monumental upset performance, the elder Keselowski still isn’t quite sure how he made it happen on the race track. “He [Brad] pushed me so hard and so fast that you just had to go and hope,” recalled Brian. “You hopefully just have it pointed in the right direction, because the guy behind you is steering for you. It was like, ‘is it going to work? Is it going to work? Oh, it worked.’”

Just because the brothers’ drafting tandem clicked didn’t make everything clear for Brian, though. Post-race, as race fans across the country saw Brad lean in to Brian’s car to congratulate his brother on pit road, everyone pondered what was said, what could be said, at such a dramatic moment for one of racing’s hardest working families. Truth be told, no one may ever know.

“I just said thank you,” said Brian when asked about the words the two exchanged. “Thank you so much, you know. To be honest, I don’t know if he could hear anything I said. I could barely hear anything he said; I had my helmet on at the time.”

Yet when euphoria finally gave way, this modern NASCAR marvel became grounded in a big-time hurry. Moments after the media carousel stopped and a torrent of unprecedented publicity for him began, reality suddenly set in for Brian Keselowski as to just how big a deal this was… and how unprepared he was for it.

“[My first concern was] where am I going to stay?” he explained. “Honestly, that was it.”

The man and the driver who now guaranteed $250,000 for last place was preoccupied with if he could even get a room for the night. Fully expecting not to qualify this Thursday, the entire K-Automotive operation had checked out of their hotel rooms that morning before heading to the racetrack, leaving their chances to get a replacement slim and none.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing on his mind.

“What’s for dinner tonight?” he explained matter-of-factly was the second question that entered his head. “I hadn’t eaten much all day, I don’t deal well with the heat and food in my stomach. First thing we did was we went and ate at the Olive Garden outside the racetrack here, started making some phone calls and we couldn’t find a hotel room. So my truck driver said hey, my sister lives near here. Called her, she said we have a couple rooms, come on over. So that’s what we did.”

– – – –

“Go and hope” may be how Keselowski described the late-race charge he and brother Brad made to score the duo top-10 finishes in the second Gatorade Duel race, but it’s also an apt descriptor of what brought Brian and the scarce resources he had to the high banks of Daytona this February. Following a disastrous 2010 campaign in the Nationwide Series that saw Keselowski start-and-parking both of his cars on a number of weekends (his two primary machines last year combined for 16 DNQs), recycling 1,000-mile-old parts and motors meant any semblance of competitiveness went out the window.

Economic realities were harsh as well. For all his investment in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski was struggling to make any kind of ends meet between the missed races and the continually declining purses available for running the series. With a number of old Cup COTs sitting around his shop, Keselowski opted to make a number of Cup starts late in 2010… and the results were disastrous. The team missed every single Cup race it attempted, including an attempt at Texas that saw the machine nearly 20 mph off pole speed.

The struggles of his Nationwide effort, along with the disappointment of missing Cup even on the short tracks he made his name on, left Brian questioning whether even showing up for Daytona was worth it.

“Honestly, for the last week I’ve been saying we don’t have a chance in the world,” admitted Keselowski when asked what he thought his chances were headed into Speedweeks.

“I didn’t even want to come here, because I knew I wasn’t going to be competitive.”

In the end, though, the racer in Keselowski won out. For all the fiscal risk and the undeniable truth that he was bringing the equivalent of a knife to a gunfight, Brian still opted to defy the odds, making the trek to the world’s center of racing.

“It’s the Daytona 500, and everyone’s got their shot,” he says of his thought process. “You get the chance to race your way into the show. You don’t have to be fast, you have to be lucky, you have to be good.”

“If this had been Talladega in a couple months, I wouldn’t have even showed up. There’s no way. With what I had to offer, it wasn’t fast enough, it wasn’t even close.”

– – – –

For all the ecstasy of making the world’s biggest stock car race, for suddenly becoming the darling of Speedweeks (even ESPN’s Jamie Little walked up to shake Brian’s work-stained hand as we were speaking outside of his hauler on Friday afternoon), those that know and have followed Keselowski in his seemingly-futile quest to establish himself in NASCAR on his own terms know that blunt realism and honesty have defined every step he’s taken to get to this Sunday.

And that’s perhaps the best way to explain the reaction he’s had to the reality he’s now in; one of 43 men with a shot at motorsports immortality, a quarter million dollars richer no matter what happens once the green flag flies.

Those traits tie in to a discussion of his season plans, more specifically next weekend’s Cup race. Because while Keselowski told the media assembled in his post-Duel press conference that the payday his 500 start would bring meant he could be able to go to Phoenix, he never actually said he would.

“I don’t even know if we’re going to be able to go yet,” noted Brian when discussing his plans for his six-figure payday. “I put my entry in, but it was kind of like ‘well, if this doesn’t work maybe we’ve got a car that can go to Phoenix.’”

“Now, the car’s beat up a fairly good amount. And when you come to the track, you’ve got to be right. They’re going to make sure we’re right now [in Daytona], and that’s fine. That’s the way it goes and it’s the same for everyone. But I don’t think I can get the car repaired enough to be right for Phoenix. So, it takes another car, and I don’t have one yet.”

Asked point-blank if his remarks meant that he was contemplating a partial schedule, as opposed to running on a shoestring week after week the way his operation did in Nationwide competition the past two seasons, Keselowski answered in the affirmative. If anything, the struggles of his past two years have clearly given this owner/driver perspective that few in the garage today have.

“If I can get something that I think is competitive and go to Phoenix, I’ll go to Phoenix,” he stated of his plans. “If I feel like I can get something competitive to go to Vegas, I’ll go to Vegas. [But] I’m not going to go if I don’t think I can make the race. I’m not going to go just to say that I went. I don’t have enough money to do that.”

“[The payday] gets us back to zero. That’s about it. Maybe a little better than that, but not a lot. And that’s the best thing that could happen at this point. Now, I can look at all the people in the eye that have been helping me the last two years and say it worked.”

To be able to say that is no small feat for Brian Keselowski. For all the time and effort he put into last year’s struggling effort, he’s very conscious of just how far in the hole he was trying to run a two-car operation last season. “It’s a terrible way to have to do things,” the driver remarked of his practices last season.

“I felt like my family name got me a long way, because we built so much in this sport, that I could use that to my advantage and get to where I needed to get to. 2009 ended the season, we did OK, but last year we did so bad, I kind of felt like it dragged everything down with it. I think we can build that back up again. All it takes is getting everything back to zero again, and I’m not going to get myself in that kind of hole. I’m bound and determined that that won’t happen again.”

– – – –

Truth be told, as hard as he worked, as many risks as he took, and as much as he did right both on Thursday and in his racing career, Brian Keselowski was one of the luckiest men in sports in pulling off the feat that he did. He’s fully aware of that fact. And he’s comfortable with it.

Because for as much as it may have been luck, the confidence being exuded from one of NASCAR’s most pronounced underdogs is undeniable. Ever since taking the checkers Thursday, there’s been a grin on Brian’s face that would rival even that of his superstar brother in terms of conviction. This sport has taken him to what any racer would define as hell. Now, he’s back, on the biggest stage racing has to offer… and on his own terms.

“I think I’ve spent $35,000 on this car from ground zero to where we’re at now,” said Brian as we stood in the Cup garage. “There’s not a single person in this garage that can say they did it for near as cheap as I did it and say they made the Daytona 500. Not a single one of them can say it, and they’ve all got to be shaking their heads, saying that shouldn’t have worked. There’s no way.”

“It shouldn’t have [worked], but it did.”

“And I didn’t just fall into it,” he continued. “I didn’t finish 18th in a 24-car race and somehow still get in. I finished fifth in the 150. In my first ever Cup race. To me, that makes me very proud, that’s perhaps the proudest part of it. I didn’t just fall into it, I made it work. I had a lot of help, but I made it work.”

“I earned my way into the Daytona 500.”

Even for such an open and honest driver, truer words have never been spoken.

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