In late July at Pocono, I walked into Brad Keselowski’s hauler expecting another enlightening interview. The 2012 Cup Series champion is always there to deliver when a reporter goes looking for a good quote or thought-provoking conversation, whether you agree with him or not.
The Keselowski I got that Saturday afternoon though was not Chatty Cathy about reviewing the first half of the season, where to stack his No. 2 team up against the “Big 3”, and whether being winless was taking a toll on him. Keselowski was polite, as always, and even insistent that I try some of the late afternoon snack he was making as we talked. Yet it was clear from his short, to the point answers, along with his body language, that Keselowski didn’t have much to offer on this line of conversation.
Team Penske as a group needs to find speed and execute during race weekend if they are going to succeed.
His confidence level is the same as it was at this point last year.
He believes his No. 2 team will find what they need when the playoffs start.
Watch the race on any given Sunday, and the story of Keselowski’s season is easy to see. So, he really didn’t need to be prophetic or overly energetic to express that to me. It was just unusual to see him so subdued, and almost resigned to this being the direction of his season.
“There’s no doubt about it – when you’re not fast, life sucks as a race car driver,” Keselowski said after finally winning at Darlington Raceway last Sunday night.
“You’re just literally going around beating your head up against a wall, hoping that each weekend it’ll show up: that the engineering will show up, and the team will show up, and that everything will happen just perfect, because you have to. And that you won’t screw it up as a driver when they do show up. And those things hadn’t clicked until today, and so that can really drain your batteries fast, that’s for sure.”
While the summer months have been hard on Team Penske as an organization, in Keselowski’s case you can plot the graph from trending upward to dipping south; the No. 2 having dropped to eighth in the overall standings before Darlington.
Keselowski had been fourth in points coming into the summer after a hot start to the season, where he earned nine top-10s in the first 15 races. Moreover, while he hadn’t been to victory lane, Keselowski was running up front pretty consistently with four stage wins and over 250 laps led.
But since Sonoma, the numbers have been hot one week and cold the next. Of his five DNFs on the season, two have come in the last 10 races, and including the Darlington win, Keselowski has finished in the top 10 just four times. He has not won a stage since Talladega.
So getting over the hump for a win can undoubtedly recharge a driver, but Keselowski and company are not out of the woods just yet. First, Keselowski admitted that Darlington is not like any other race they will visit the rest of the season, so success one night doesn’t mean it’ll translate going forward.
Plus, there is the possibility of Keselowski accumulating some of his lowest career numbers in the overall categories of top five and top-10 finishes, depending on how he performs over the next 11 weeks. Essentially, Keselowski needs a top-10 finish every week from here to Homestead to pull those numbers up.
“Well, it’s been a heck of a year,” Keselowski said. “We just… it’s been really frustrating, because we haven’t had the speed we’ve had over the last few seasons, and then the races where we’ve had the speed, I feel like I completely screwed them up. Before today that we had the speed to win Daytona and Talladega, and that’s probably about it, and I messed both those races up. And you just never know when you’re going to get a winning race car again.
“And so you hope it’s every week. You enter every weekend thinking that. Then you get to the race, and it’s not there, and you’re like, ‘oh, what if I never get another car capable of winning again?’ Today we had a car capable of winning, we executed, we made the most of it, and I’m so thrilled for that because I know those moments are not a guarantee.
“What’s so difficult about those moments is early in my career, 2010, we didn’t have cars anywhere close to being able to win, and then 2011 came, at least the second half of the year, and we did have cars capable of winning, and I started to make a name for myself, and there’s almost a point in time where you take that for granted, having a car and a team capable of winning. And then you start to see that slip away, and you think to yourself, ‘oh, my God, this could be it’, right? I might not ever get those opportunities again.
“Moments like today are just so refreshing. They recharge your batteries so much, because the season is such a death march, especially when things aren’t going well, and this is a complete battery recharge for myself and for our team. It makes going to the racetrack fun, knowing that you’ve won and you can win.”
Winning also brought out the talkative and fun-natured Keselowski. The winner’s press conference in Darlington started with Keselowski asking if there was any Bojangles’ chicken left over and him settling for sweet potato pie, which “you’d think would be the first to go,” he joked.
Then Keselowski did open up in detail about his season and what it means to win at Darlington for nearly 25 minutes, as the clock ticked toward the early morning hours of Monday.