He may be all of 25 now, but Brad Keselowski is still easily mistaken for being even younger. For one thing, he looks like a gangly kid, his angular features marked by a goofy smile and a goatee that is a futile attempt at manly scruff. In street clothes, usually blue jeans and a white T-shirt, Keselowski appears less like a guy who attends prerace drivers' meetings than one who's on his way to freshman orientation. And there's his white-hot NASCAR career, which to casual observers seemingly began only two years ago.
That's when Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed the virtually unknown Keselowski to drive for his JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series. In the 65 races since, Keselowski has three victories and 33 other top 10 finishes. Even better, in April he won a wild race at Talladega in just his fifth Sprint Cup start. A regular ride in the Big Show seems a certainty, perhaps as early as next season.
It has all happened so fast, this rush from anonymity to potential stardom. Recently, an office assistant at Hendrick Motorsports, which is partnered with Earnhardt's operation, called Keselowski's public relations manager, Martha McGrath, to check if he was old enough to sign for a rental car. "It happens all the time," says McGrath. "A reporter asked Brad a few weeks ago to name something nobody knew about him, and his answer was, 'That I'm 25 and not 18.'"
Perhaps because Keselowski started winning races almost out of the blue, without ever having been tagged as a phenom, there's a general assumption that he's been one all along—only without the hype. In truth, Keselowski's success is nothing like a lightning strike. He has done far more than just trade paint in rising through NASCAR's ranks.
Born into a family that has been racing at one level or another for more than 50 years, he was turning wrenches on his father Bob's cars long before he ever began turning laps in them. The racing business is one of feast or famine, largely dependent on sponsorship. Over the years Brad saw his family's fortunes rise and fall many times, and he learned how to hold on and survive. When Bob's operation, K-Automotive Motorsports, finally collapsed four years ago under the strain of its financial obligations, Keselowski was left without a ride and without prospects. Striking out on his own, he scrounged for opportunities in the Camping World (then Craftsman) Truck and Nationwide (then Busch) series, and wound up driving mostly second-rate machines. "I was a back marker, always bringing up the rear," he says. "I lost about two years of my life in that transition."
But the tenacity he needed to endure the lean times still serves Keselowski well, as illustrated at Talladega. Running in the top five late in the race, he tucked in close behind Carl Edwards's number 99 Ford and, with one lap to go, the pair stormed to the front, past leader Ryan Newman. Exiting Turn 4, Keselowski faked a move to the outside, sliding to the right as if to pass. Edwards tried to block, jerking his car to the outside, and Keselowski then dived to the inside. Edwards swung back to the left to block, but Keselowski had position down low, just above the yellow line that marks the inside of the track. Keselowski knew that the drivers are forbidden to go below the line to make a pass, and he wasn't going to budge. "I had nothing to lose," says Keselowski, who had seen NASCAR take a win away from Regan Smith at Talladega last October for dipping below the yellow line.
The left-rear quarter panel on Edwards's car hit Keselowski's right-front fender, spinning Edwards into the path of Newman. That impact sent Edwards's car flying into the grandstand catch fence, as Keselowski crossed the finish line. "If he drives below the yellow line, he loses the race, so what's a guy to do?" said Edwards afterward. "Brad was doing everything right."
Late in the fall of 2005 the racing team that Bob Keselowski had started 36 years earlier with his older brother, Ron, was in ruins, and he believed he had failed—failed himself and failed his family. A hardscrabble operation from start to finish, K-Automotive, based near the Keselowskis' home in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, had been a fixture on the USAC and ARCA circuits and had even dabbled at the Cup level, with modest success, in the early 1970s. In '95 the team switched full time to NASCAR's truck series, and everyone in the family had their roles. Ron was the crew chief; Bob drove; his wife, Kay (who also worked as a relocation coordinator for a division of GM), kept the books and worked as a spotter; their sons, Brian and Brad, when they were old enough, worked on the pit crew; daughters Ginger, Kathy and Dawn pitched in where they could. Bob always assumed that he would one day pass on the business to his two boys so they could run it themselves or use it as a springboard to bigger things. "If they'd wanted to be lawyers, there's really nothing I could have given them," he once told Kay. "This is all I know."
Brian, the older of the boys by two years, and Brad were wild to race. But while Brian went to school during the week and raced on weekends, Brad accelerated his racing education. He left high school after his freshman year, completed the next two grades on a work-study program in the family's race shop and burned through his senior year in night school, graduating a semester early, in January 2003, so he could follow the team to Daytona.
"He's very analytical," says Kay. "He was always figuring out a different way."
"He drives you nuts," says Bob. "There's got to be a plan for the simplest thing."
Brad even had a plan ready when the family business went under. He had driven a full season in the truck series in 2005, and after Petra Stone, a North Carolina--based masonry company, reneged on its sponsorship deal with K-Automotive at the end of the season, Brad hit the road, working as a spotter in the truck series and picking up occasional rides. (Petra Stone did not fulfill its contract to pay K-Automotive $4 million, forcing Bob to sell his race shop and all of his equipment. The family filed suit and won an $11.8 million judgment in 2006, but it has yet to collect a penny.) Brad began making his own luck, racing well enough to pick up rides in the Nationwide Series.
"He was in cars that weren't qualified to run where he was running them," says Tony Eury Sr., Brad's crew chief at JR Motorsports. "He has a lot of car control. You don't learn that. It's just born in you."
Keselowski's skills finally attracted wide attention in a truck race at Memphis in June 2007. Replacing suspended driver Ted Musgrave, Keselowski put the Team ASE Toyota on the pole and led 62 of the 200 laps. But nine laps from the finish, Cup regular Travis Kvapil spun him out and stole the win; Keselowski finished 16th, but won the admiration of many observers, including Earnhardt, who said he felt sorry for the young driver. "I got more press out of that race than if I'd won it," Keselowski says.
Earnhardt—who'd first met Keselowski while playing video racing games over the Internet—was impressed with his effort in Memphis and offered him the seat in his Nationwide car. It was the break of a lifetime for Keselowski. By picking up the ride with JR Motorsports he also came under the watchful eye of team co-owner Rick Hendrick, whose Cup operation is the class of the series. Keselowski raced so well so quickly on the Nationwide circuit that Hendrick ran him in two Cup races last fall—at one point referring to Brad as "the future of our company"—and mapped out a seven-race schedule for this season.
As recently as two months ago Keselowski believed that he was being groomed to take over 50-year-old Mark Martin's ride in the number 5 Chevy at Hendrick Motorsports, beginning with 10 races in 2010. But on May 6, Hendrick announced that Martin would run a full schedule next season. Where does that leave Keselowski? Hendrick has said that he will meet with the driver soon to discuss plans for 2010. Among the possible scenarios are that Keselowski will drive a Cup car for a Hendrick-affiliated operation such as Stewart-Haas Racing, or that JR Motorsports will launch a Cup team for him.
For his part, Keselowski, who on Sunday finished sixth in the Cup race at New Hampshire, says that "progress is being made" with Hendrick. "When there's no longer progress being made, I'll look for opportunities elsewhere."
Even Kay doesn't know what her son is planning. "But I can guarantee that whatever decision he makes will be the right one," she says. "Brad won't make a bad decision. He never has."
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"If he drives below the yellow line, he loses the race, so what's a guy to do," Edwards said at Talladega. "Brad was doing everything right."
"[Brad's] very analytical. He was always figuring out a different way," says Keselowski's mother. "He drives you nuts," says his father.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
PHOTO COMPOSITE BY SI IMAGING
THE NEXT STEP The product of a gritty racing family that persevered in obscurity, Keselowski is suddenly NASCAR's standout prospect.
CRASHING IN At Talladega, Kesolowski (front) held his line, sending Edwards flying and taking his first Cup win.
JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
POUR IT ON The skills and tenacity that Keselowski acquired driving for his father (bottom) made a splash with Earnhardt (in white).
[See caption above]