The Racing Capital
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Aug 9, 2015
January 12, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
When it comes to the longest season in professional motorsports, the offseason in NASCAR is little more than a rest stop on the fast road to a sport that seems to be in perpetual motion. And that is why the roar of racing engines returned to Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 10 as 35 drivers hit the track for NASCAR’s “Preseason Thunder.”
Let the “Road to the 2013 Daytona 500” begin – the first stop on a season-long journey that includes the “Road to the Brickyard” and ultimately the “Road to the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.”
Unlike the Beatles “Long and Winding Road,” this road is mostly left-hand turns with the exception of stops at The Raceway at Sonoma in June and Watkins Glen International in August – the only two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule.
And while it’s a time for a fresh start for the teams that failed to win the championship in 2012, the same can be said for the champion. Brad Keselowski hit the track in a Ford, not a Dodge.
Last year, Keselowski drove a Dodge to the championship to give 15-time Indianapolis 500-winning team owner Roger Penske his only NASCAR Sprint Cup title. But early in 2012, Penske decided to switch to Ford in 2013. Without finding another championship-caliber team, Dodge has left NASCAR.
“It is obviously great to be back at the track,” Keselowski said Jan. 10. “At the end of the day, we are all racers and want to get back to doing what we love, and racing is a passion we share. We have a lot of work to be done for Penske Racing to make the conversion over from Dodge to Ford, and a lot of that work was done at the shop and then you come to the track and test and you verify it. There are a lot of things going on, including the new car, that will get a lot of buzz here, deservedly so. We are all working hard to figure out things together.
“We might not be as fast as we want, but somebody told me that Ford stands for “First On Race Day,” and it isn’t race day yet, so we don’t have to worry about that yet.”
There are many things that motivate Keselowski for the upcoming season, including giving his team owner one more accomplishment that he has never achieved – a victory in the Crown Royal presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard on July 28 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Damn, I thought I had it in 2012, to be quite honest,” Keselowski said of the elusive Indianapolis victory. “The 48 car (Jimmie Johnson) brought out some bag of tricks we weren’t ready for. That’s OK. We’ve got the big prize and have a lot of stuff we want to do. We want to win that Indy race, want to win the Daytona 500 and would like to win that championship again, too.”
Penske created a bit of a buzz in early December when he offered three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., a ride in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Stewart turned down the offer for a variety of reasons. But Keselowski would love to be considered for that opportunity one day, although a Ford NASCAR driver getting behind the wheel of a Chevrolet-powered IndyCar would be highly unlikely.
“Well, it’s a Chevrolet in IndyCar, and Tony is a Chevy driver,” Keselowski said. “Ford isn’t involved in IndyCar, but if they did, I’m sure I would be knocking on Roger’s door. It appeals to me. How can it not appeal to you? It would be the pinnacle achievement of motorsports of all-time to win that race. Why wouldn’t you do it? I think it would be awesome. It’s what our sport needs, and I don’t mean just NASCAR but also IndyCar and any other form of racing.”
When a visitor walks into the Penske Racing headquarters and race shop in Mooresville, N.C., the first thing on display is the collection of “Baby Borg” trophies for winning the Indianapolis 500, as well as the Victory Lane photos of each Penske driver who won the Indy 500.
But Keselowski is the only driver that has a Sprint Cup championship trophy at the magnificent complex.
“I’m just Brad Keselowski, and I’m doing the best I can to be him,” Keselowski said. “Any time you can give a billionaire something he has never had before, you have done something. That is tough to do. You have to buy planets or something like that. The Sprint Cup is a unique item; it’s one of the hardest items in racing to achieve. It’s up there with winning either the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500 – probably even a little bit more.
“It’s been a good ride. I always knew winning a Sprint Cup title would be a big achievement, no matter who you are, but you don’t realize just how big until you actually win it. My family is soaking it all in. They don’t have the commitments that I do, so they can enjoy it. But I’m happy for them.”
When asked what he has enjoyed the most about being a champion, Keselowski said it was a tie between doing the burnouts on the Las Vegas Strip and reading the Top 10 list on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
“That was really, really fun,” Keselowski said. “The big glass of beer I had on the live interviews at Homestead was probably more fun for everybody else than it was for me. I still did enjoy it, though. I’m glad I gave you all something to watch.
“I am slowly soaking it in, so I don’t have a great answer for you. But to me, it has been a lot of fun just seeing some of the doors that open up. It is really a vague way of putting it, but some of the doors that open up, whether it is people showing you more respect or opportunities to do different events you may never have had before. To me, that is the most fun and more honoring moments of being a champion. I am really looking forward to seeing how those open up. The great thing that separates winning a championship from winning a race is that you are a champion for a whole year. I feel like I won a race, but you get to celebrate it for a whole year. That is a really good feeling.”
The time to celebrate the 2012 championship has passed, along with the year itself. The calendar has turned to 2013, and that means back to business in NASCAR.
From the Ford perspective, this is the first time that both Jack Roush and Roger Penske have had a manufacturer’s mate that can compete for the title. That puts Keselowski and the team in a unique situation after being Dodge’s only team the past few seasons.
“Some of that stuff is a work in progress,” he said. “I think so far we all agree to the Ford approach of One Ford, where we are going to share what we can that is practical to do so. Those things are being defined daily as far as what is OK to share and what is not. I don’t have great answers for you there, but we all agree that it is better for us to get beat by another Ford than to watch us be the best Ford but not be the fastest car on the track. I would rather get beat by another Ford and run second or third than run 17th and be the best Ford. In order for that to work out, there has to be a level of cooperation, and I think we all see that. It is just a matter of defining what that level is.”
The “Gen-6” car is supposed to give each manufacturer a return to its identity. NASCAR hopes that strikes a chord with some of its fans who grew tired of all the cars looking the same.
“I don’t think it is going to hurt, but I think it is naive to think that a car will solve everything,” Keselowski said. “I think that is really naive. There is a lot of work to be done to capitalize on everything. It is a big piece of what this sport needs to be the best it can be. I think that commitment is something we should all be proud of. I think that the major positive we have seen so far was up in Detroit in January with the Ford team. The level of engagement from the very highest levels is remarkable. It shows the commitment that Ford has, and I have never experienced that before. That makes me feel very confident that any bit of adversity or any hurdle that we have to climb, we can do it because we have a dedication of resources and top-notch people.”
The key to success in 2013 will be for the first team and driver that get a complete understanding of the new car.
“Obviously, the faster you get a hold of the speed, speed is the basic necessity of a winning team, but that’s not all it takes,” Keselowski said. “It takes a lot more than speed to win, and you still have to have some of the other things that go with it, which are execution and good fortune, and you have to have all of those other pieces that we could list out for days, but speed is the backbone of this sport and any team’s success. Anyone who comes out of the gate with the most amount of speed has the potential, so it tends to be an area where we all go first, naturally, but it takes a lot more than that to be a winner and to be a consistent winner or a champion, and we know that, too.
“It appears that there are a few guys that are just a little bit ahead of everyone else. I think the Toyotas have shown that they’re going to be really, really tough to beat with this new car. I really like the way they finished last year, and, for them, I think they have the capability of starting out next year even stronger than the field, so that will be interesting to watch. But there’s still a lot of testing and a lot of development left to be done. However, if I was to venture a guess, I would definitely say that they’re at the top of the list.”
Keselowski also has a new teammate in 2013 as Joey Logano has moved over from Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish was an interim driver of the No. 22 car after A.J. Allmendinger failed NASCAR’s drug test and was fired at Penske Racing. Hornish continues as a fulltime Nationwide Series competitor.
“Pushing Joey to be a part of Penske Racing was something that I was behind, for sure,” Keselowski said. “I think we look for a lot of things out of Joey. He has the youth to be in this sport for a long time if he chooses to do so. He has a great attitude as far as the positive energy he brings and credentials that make him someone that you can look up to or respect as far as his personal life and decisions and so forth. I think you combine that at the end with his talent, and in theory he should be around for quite some time and be able to make Penske Racing and that 22 team a perennial contender. It is just a matter of putting the other pieces together with him.
“The best way I can break in Joey is to get him one of those championship glasses and take him out for night. I think he’d really enjoy that, and I’d really enjoy it.”
In NASCAR, success is measured in wins and championships. That is first and foremost for Keselowski and Penske Racing. That is why even though the champion returned to the track Jan. 10, it’s the first step toward a new season, not a time to rest on the glory of last season.
“It’s really tough for any championship team to be able to keep all of the people motivated because you’ve achieved a goal,” Keselowski said. “I think everybody starts out their career wanting to be a champion and wanting to be the best and that keep you motivated, but once you get that, it’s easy to lose your motivation and we have to find ways to motivate ourselves.
“The best employees we have at Penske Racing are always going to be self-motivated, but, also, we have to find ways to make sure that there is no temptation to lose that motivation, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges we have. The switch to Ford itself is good because it lends itself to having something to prove, and I think that in itself is a point I maybe didn’t make earlier. One of the best advantages of switching to Ford is it gives us something to prove all over again, that we can continue to be successful no matter what the manufacturer or no matter what the circumstance is, and I think that’s very healthy.
“I also feel like, as a team, we have that motivation right now.”