With moves that left two of NASCAR’s best drivers slack-jawed Sunday, Brad Keselowski delivered Penske Racing its first Sprint Cup victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 38 years of trying.
Team owner Roger Penske thinks Keselowski is a world-class driver and could lead the team to more uncharted territory by the end of the 2012 season: the head table reserved for NASCAR’s Cup champion at the postseason awards ceremony.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody right now,” said Penske, who has 15 Indianapolis 500 victories and several championships but still seeks his first Cup title. “He’s the real package. What we’re trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.
“One of the goals in my life is to sit up on that stage, and I think he’s the guy that can make it happen, this year, hopefully.”
With his second Cup victory at Talladega (his first came in April 2009 for owner James Finch), the 28-year-old stamped himself as a serious contender for the Cup championship.
Keselowski is ranked 12th in the standings. But his two victories this season put him in strong position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup title run as a wild card if he doesn’t claim a top-10 points berth. His other victory this season came at 0.533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, putting him in victory lane at one of the circuit’s shortest and longest (2.66-mile Talladega) tracks.
Such versatility, of course, is no surprise to the often brash 2010 Nationwide Serieschampion.
“Hell, it’s my job to be good,” said Keselowski, who made a Cup breakthrough last year with three victories and a fifth-place points finish. “That’s what I get paid for. I don’t get paid to suck at this. If I did, I’m not driving for the right guy. This guy has won all these races over here. We’re trying real hard to get that first Cup championship. We’re doing the right things.”
After driving a perfect race, according to Penske, Keselowski made the perfect move on a green-white-checkered finish to the race, which was extended six laps past its scheduled 188-lap distance by a multicar crash.
Running beside leader Matt Kenseth for the final restart, Keselowski took first with a bump-draft from Kyle Busch. On the final lap, he swung his No. 2 Dodge high in Turn 3, then low to separate from Busch, who said he gave away the race.
Kenseth felt similarly. “I was just too stupid, I guess, to keep a win,” he said after finishing third.
Kenseth led a race-high 73 laps but couldn’t stay hooked together late with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, the Cup points leader.
“He’s no dummy; he’s got good plate-racing skills,” Busch said of Keselowski, the first winner in five Talladega races to lead the final two laps. “He’s got good short-track, mile-and-a-half skills, too. Brad should be a title contender each and every year.”
Said Kenseth, “I think Brad can run pretty good everywhere. If you look at the races he’s won, all different styles of tracks. Brad works hard as it, too. That’s one thing people don’t notice or give him credit for, he works really hard, and I think that’s a lot of reason for his success.”
Despite the swagger (during his postrace interview, Keselowski offered that he was “happily single” and only shared information with crew chief Paul Wolfe on “a need-to-know basis”), there also is a measure of humility with the rising star from Rochester Hills, Mich. It’s evident when he talks of bringing Penske, a fellow Michigan native, a title.
“I don’t want this to be offensive, but to win another Cup championship for (Rick) Hendrick or Richard Childress is not the same as winning the first for Roger Penske,” he said. “That’s a whole different accomplishment. I think he’s certainly paid his dues in this sport. (He) is a titan for a reason. I want to be the guy that proves it in the record books.”
First, he’ll need to prove it on the track. Keselowski cautioned the Talladega win guaranteed nothing.
“There’s a lot of races,” he said. “You got to be good at all of them to be a champion. I have room to improve certainly at other places. That’s what will make this team a champion
“You just got to keep pushing. The second where you think you have become a champion, everybody else gets ahead of you. I think being a champion, other than actually having the trophy, is not a destination, it’s part of the trip. It’s a never-ending journey.”