CRANDALL: The kick that Keselowski needed

Kinrade/Motorsport Images

CRANDALL: The kick that Keselowski needed

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CRANDALL: The kick that Keselowski needed

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On January 6, after completing his purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NTT IndyCar Series and IMS productions, Roger Penske announced the realignment of his three NASCAR Cup Series teams. The move seemingly came out of nowhere, as every team had won and made the playoffs in 2019.

For about five minutes – if that long – the move was surprising. Then came the reminder that Penske knows what he’s doing, followed by a breakdown of which one of the teams was the real winner in the deal.

Until Sunday at New Hampshire, the answer appeared to be Ryan Blaney. He was the one who landed championship-winning crew chief Todd Gordon, one of the smartest guys in the garage. Gordon was the ingredient Blaney needed to pick up his performance, while Paul Wolfe, who guided Brad Keselowski to a title, and Joey Logano, the 2018 champion, were going to be just fine.

Keselowski ended up with the team that had been Blaney’s, led by Jeremy Bullins. On January 7, a particular writer opined that Blaney and Bullins were always a step behind their teammates. Would the same now happen with Keselowski as the driver?

Twenty races into the season, the answer has been a resounding no. And not only that, Keselowski is the leader of the Team Penske clubhouse in wins, top-10 finishes, playoff points, and laps led. In the big picture, Keselowski is second-best in laps led, top-10 finishes, and average finish in the series.

“It’s been good,” said Keselowski, standing on the New Hampshire frontstretch, of his relationship with Bullins. “I’ve had a good career, and I thought we needed a kick in the ass, and Jeremy and this whole team have been a kick in the butt for me to make me a little better and push me to find another level and we’re doing that so far.

“I’m just really thankful. I’m in a great spot here, and hungry for more wins. I think this is my fifth straight year with three wins, but I don’t want to stop here. I want us to keep going, and I know this team can do it. I’m driven.”

The off-season pairing of Keselowski and Bullins has resulted in fresh ideas – and good results. Image by Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Complacency is a threat to even the best athletes. In the spring of 2019, Keselowski addressed his concern of it happening to his team on the grounds that they were off to such a hot start, but had such a long way to go in the season.

Pressed about his “kick in the ass” comment after his most recent win, Keselowski reiterated that he’d had a good team since he became a full-time driver in 2010. Coming into the year, Keselowski had won a championship (2012), 30 races, and finished inside the top 10 in points in seven of his ten full seasons.

But Keselowski also admitted, “Good is the enemy of great. Sometimes I’ve allowed myself to fall into that good category. Good isn’t good enough.”

At 36 years old, Keselowski is past merely wanting a second title and is now “dying” to get the second one. In a way, a second title would validate his career, and Keselowski looks at multiple titles as what helps craft a driver’s legacy. He is also big on numbers or markers for the Hall of Fame. Thirty wins is a marker to Keselowski, which he hit last year and has surpassed with Bullins and company.

Working with a completely new group of people “has been a really good challenge for me,” said Keselowski. “In a lot of ways, it removes some sacred cows in the ways I approach things, and I think that’s a good thing. The low downforce on the cars this year is really clicking with me on the short tracks, which is good. Like I said, to remove the sacred cows from me and my way of thinking, that can be really healthy.”

Good health has translated to sweet success for the No. 2 team. But there is more to be had with plenty of racing still to go.

“We’ve only got three wins, which is great, but there’s a lot of races,” said Bullins. “You look back and think, ‘if we did this a little bit differently, we could have won that race, too’. I think it’s a testament to this team. This group is very good at not taking ‘no’ for an answer in a lot of ways when it comes to trying to get better, trying to push things, find new ways to find speed, find handling in these cars.

“I think everybody at Team Penske has that mentality. I think it’s been a really good working relationship with Brad. We’ve tried to use his experience to our advantage as a team. I told him day one, our job is to give him the tools to be successful. We’re going to rely on his feedback a lot to do that, his experience. It’s just been a good mix.

“There are just some fresh ideas from our team, and you combine that with his experience, and being able to talk about what you anticipate the racetrack is going to do as the day goes. The stuff is invaluable when it comes to making good decisions.”

Who else makes good decisions? Roger Penske. And the decision he made seven months ago has provided new energy to his veteran driver.

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