Brad Keselowski might be the next Dale Earnhardt, but then again, he might not be. However, he is raising eyebrows after sparking two major incidents over the past month.
Picture it. Green-white-checkered attempt, championship on the line, a hole opens up on the track. Keselowski saw an opportunity open up with only a handful of laps remaining and went for it. In doing so, he and four-time champion Jeff Gordon got together. As a result, the driver of the No. 24 spun with a cut tire and ultimately ended up finishing 29th, one lap down.
After the race, Gordon pulled up next to Keselowski on pit road where the two exchanged words. Enter Kevin Harvick, who was also battling with Keselowski. Harvick gave the driver of the No. 2 Ford a shove towards Gordon, and from there, chaos erupted between the two crews – and many others, for that matter. Cameramen and reporters scrambled to get out of the way. In the aftermath, both Keselowski and Gordon displayed cuts on their faces, forgetting about their lives outside of the track and focusing on the anger that was rushing through their veins. Yet, in the midst of the brawl, neither of the drivers actually punched each other.
“I’m not trying to sit here and sugarcoat it and try to be the intimidatior, say they better not race,” Keselowski said following the incident. “That’s not what I’m trying to say. My expectation is if there’s a gap, they’ll go for it. If there’s a gap, I’ll go for it. If it closes up, there’s contact, then that’s racing. And that’s what happened today.”
Although Keselowski might have pushed Gordon’s buttons, did he really have much of a choice? Not really. Entering the AAA Texas 500, Keselowski was 31 points behind the leader, and 26 behind fourth-place in the Chase. With a third-place finish on Sunday, he remains seventh in points, yet just five points behind Gordon, who now holds the fourth position.
Throughout the weekend, the No. 2 car struggled with handling, but Keselowski 26th and worked his way into the top 15 rather quickly. Moreover, when he reached the top 10, it seemed as if crew chief Paul Wolfe hit a plateau, but the pair never gave up. In a late-race Hail Mary, they stayed out with one scheduled stop remaining. Keselowski was able to stay inside the top 3 before the final four-tire pit stop during a caution with less than 50 laps to go. The track position, combined with clean air, fixed the handling issues, and that’s when Keselowski gave it his all.
If it weren’t for his aggressive personality, it’s likely Keselowski wouldn’t have been battling Gordon and eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson. It was all or nothing for Keselowski in a Chase where winning is the only way to ensure survival and moving on to the next round. And beyond that, to keep his title chances alive, he had to ensure he garnered as many points as possible, just in case it came down to setting the final four based on the standings.
But Gordon felt differently and he had every right to. He was a lot quicker than Johnson and would likely have taken the win and locked himself into the final round of the Chase. But by making a daring pass entering turn 1, Keselowski put himself in position to win, while trying to prevent a fellow competitor from taking the sure shot to Homestead.
Gordon’s anger is something he rarely shows, but NASCAR’s all or nothing playoff format has left drivers scrambling for every position in every race to put themselves in the best position as the season winds down. Everything is on the line, and there is no choice but to give it your all.
Keselowski is a rare personality in NASCAR today, especially with drivers who would rather not rock the boat, but that’s also caused some on-track conflicts. A few weeks ago, he managed to anger a few of his fellow competitors, and this week, you can add Gordon to the list of drivers that won’t be sending him a holiday cards any time soon. But Keselowski is a man that the sport needs; he’s someone who’s honest and will give the racing his all every single week.
Keselowski is a driver that puts it all on the line, and that’s not always something other drivers on the track like. During the post-race press conference, he noted that his peers aren’t in charge of him – Roger Penske and the executives at Team Penske are. Penske’s team didn’t win a championship before this man came along, and no one has a personality like him. Some have compared him to the late Dale Earnhardt, who was charitable off track, but on the track he was seen as a man not to mess with. That’s how Keselowski should be seen, yet he isn’t because his demeanor is foreign to a sport that has been edging away from that kind of mentality.
Now, there is a single race left to decide who makes it to the championship race and who doesn’t. Keselowski and Gordon will likely be racing near each other at Phoenix next weekend, and that could add a major spark to the fire. Keselowski is on probation from the incident at Charlotte Motor Speedway, yet he didn’t throw any punches and appeared to have plenty of bruises compared to Gordon. But at the end of the day, Keselowski and Gordon each have the right to show their emotions in what might be a championship-deciding incident.
“I can’t fault them for that,” Keselowski said. “I just feel like I have to go for the gap if it’s there and I have to race the way I race or I won’t even be in NASCAR. I’d rather have enemies in NASCAR than have friends and be sitting at home. From my perspective, I think I’ve come to the reality that there’s a lot worse things in this world than me. If I’m a villain, the people that think I’m a villain have a pretty good life and should be proud of that. All this stuff that’s going on in the world, if your villain is me racing 100%, you’ve got it pretty good and I don’t feel too bad for you.”
The bottom line is Keselowski had no choice but to go after the victory in Texas. Driving aggressively is how Gordon made a name for himself, and the driver of the Blue Deuce has done the same thing. And after all, isn’t aggression what NASCAR really needs?
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