On April 26 2009, in just his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup start Brad Keselowski appeared from behind Carl Edwards’ airborne and fence-bound car to win his first race in the top tier of American Stock Car racing.
It’s a first win that has become immortalised in NASCAR highlights tapes, though more for carnage unfolding behind as he crossed the line than for the celebrations that followed for Keselowski and James Finch’s Phoenix Racing outfit.
But, as he dust settled – quite literally – I’d guess that a straw poll among the fans in the stands at Talladega Motor Speedway that day would have trended heavily in favour of the man who ran across the finish line when asked whether they thought Edwards or Keselowski would be the first man to lift the Sprint Cup championship.
At the time, it would have been the sensible option. Edwards was starting 2009 after a 2008 campaign that remains his most successful season by wins, scoring nine the year before, though he would go on to endure and winless 2009 season.
There would have been similar decision had Kyle Busch been offered up instead of Edwards – Busch’s unpopularity aside. Busch too had his most successful season in 2008 – his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing – and was probably the favourite for the title at the start of the 10 race Chase For The Sprint Cup before a litany of mechanical problems knocked him out of contention.
However, when Jimmie Johnson retired to the garage with 38 laps for the Ford EcoBoost 400 still to run it put Keselowski on a final approach to left the trophy before both Edwards and Busch and complete a rapid rise over the his three seasons in the premier series.
After an unspectacular debut season in the #12 car that yielded just two top results Keselowski shot back to victory lane at Kansas in June 2010 at the start of an unlikely bounce in the second half of the season that began with a broken ankle in a testing crash at Road Atlanta.
Victory at Pocono followed just days after the crash with a second, a third and another win on successive weekends at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol. The trio of wins secured one of the two wildcard spots for the season ending Chase in which a hot and cold run combined four more top tens with six finishes of 16th or worse, limiting him to a fifth place finish in the final standings.
Three wins, including returns to the victory lanes of both Bristol and Talladega, were good enough to see Keselowski into a second consecutive chase, though he did not have to rely on the wildcards, given out of the drivers with the most wins outside of the top ten, instead securing a place by right. The year on year progression blatantly obvious in his championship winning results in the Chase, the 15th place at Homestead-Miami Speedway that finally secured the title his worst result of the final ten races of the season.
Arguably it’s not just the rapid rise to champion status that would have caught the fans who picked Edwards or Busch ahead of Keselowski by surprise.
Keselowski’s career in the Nationwide Series – the second tier of NASCAR’s national series – and his early seasons in the Sprint Cup – were filled with on-track scrapes, including another clash with Edwards resulting in Keselowski’s scary roof first flip into the wall at Atlanta.
With a reputation for aggressive racing before his move to Penske Racing for the end of the 2009 season it would be a logical step if Keselowski was the most active (or inactive) driver with NASCAR officialdom’s ‘Boys Have At It’ approach to contact on track.
Instead, the feuds Keselowski could have continued battling, have ebbed away allowing full focus on results, rather than the latest chapter of one ill-tempered rivalry or another.
The Keselowski that took the Sprint Cup title was a more mature driver, betraying the fact that – for all he is at the crest of a meteoric rise to NASCAR’s top table – he is perhaps deceptively old at 28. His quick rise to the champion – winning the title at the end of his third full season – comes despite his low key entry into the series, especially when compared to the man joining him at Penske Racing next season, Joey Logano vaunted as the best thing since sliced bread ahead of his debut in the Sprint Cup.
It may also be impossible to consider his 2012 season without the way it began, tweeting a picture from inside the car while stopped under a red flag on the backstraight. Though the practice is now outlawed – Keselowski himself knows this, copping a fine for another 140 character maximum riposte at Phoenix – it shows him to a very 21st century sportsman (not just racer), in an age where engaging with fans is more than an autograph and a photo. In short – a new name on the trophy, a fresh face in the spotlight, and the right balance of professional and personable he could be what NASCAR needs.
In winning the championship in just his third full season he has the beating of the two men he follows on the role of honour, who won the title for the first time in the fourth (Stewart) and fifth (Johnson) full seasons in the series and at greater age than Keselowki.
For next year Penske Racing with Keselowki and new teammate Logano will switch from Dodge to Ford, which begs the question; having given Dodge their first Sprint Cup title in 28 years can Keselowki beat Edwards again to given Ford third first title since than man he replaced in the #2 – Kurt Busch?