Last Thursday, I was fortunate to be invited to New York City to attend the NASCAR Playoffs media luncheon to kick off the Playoffs for their first season with Monster as the presenting sponsor for the top series. As I boarded the train and listened to the latest NASCAR news on the TuneIn app, I set out researching and coming up with questions for some of the best drivers in the sport.
This week is NASCAR Week at The Comeback where we will post an interview per day as we celebrate the start of the NASCAR Playoffs. Click to read our interviews with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon.
When Brad Keselowski entered NASCAR, he had to go through some struggles. That was kind of the case with the Keselowski family in past years. The Keselowski’s have been a part of NASCAR for nearly 50 years but unlike the Petty’s or the Earnhardt’s or the Elliott’s, the Keselowski’s haven’t had much success before Brad.
Brad’s father Bob had the most success in NASCAR, winning a Truck race in 1997 but Brad still had the belief that he would not only be a NASCAR driver, but will be a champion NASCAR driver.
When he started driving in NASCAR, Brad Keselowski drove for the family team and while he was gaining experience, he struggled. This wasn’t a team who had unlimited resources and a team who could win. Keselowski instead scraped for the best finishes he could. And because he was doing that, Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed Keselowski in 2007 to drive for his Xfinity Series team. This would be a chance for Keselowski to show people what he could do in some top equipment. And that very next year, Keselowski won two races and placed third in points in his first full season.
It was around this time where Keselowski would run a partial MENCS schedule with Rick Hendrick and journeyman team owner James Finch. It was in his first race with Finch (fifth career race) where Keselowski got everyone to notice him after making contact with Carl Edwards heading to the finish line on the last lap and caused him to flip into the catchfence.
It was this win, in an underfunded team, that really got Keselowski some notice and later that 2009 season, signed with Roger Penske. After a winless first season at Penske Racing, Keselowski was put in the #2 Miller Lite car and things started clicking.
Keselowski would ultimately win three times in 2011 and got his first career postseason berth. The next season, Keselowski and his team built on that to win five races and win his first top series championship and amazingly, a first championship for Penske. After decades of being on underfunded teams, the Keselowski family was finally on top of the racing world and was here to stay.
Brad’s rise to the top is a lesson for many in the sport. Some team owners want to see drivers have immediate results and whether that has to do with appeasing sponsors or trying to attract the next big talent, some drivers in the sport may have their chance cut short before ever fulfilling their potential. Brad Keselowski didn’t immediately set the NASCAR world on fire but he had that something that people knew that within time, could do just that. Brad’s story shows that if an owner is patient and gives a driver some time, they can be one of the best in the business. Roger Penske did that with Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano and one has a championship and the other has a Daytona 500. Patience pays off.
I sat down with Keselowski as we talked about a wide variety of things including the upcoming playoffs, how to be a success in NASCAR, as well as how being a family man changed him.
Phillip Bupp: You’ve been fortunate enough to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and you competed in the Daytona 500. Which one is tougher to win?
Brad Keselowski: Championship, without a doubt. The “500,” has proven to be year over year, rather circumstantial. We’ve had the last four or five years where we had just random things happen where we were like “If I rewound the race and tried to do it all over again…” There was nothing I could have done to predict or do anything about that. Where a championship, I like to think you have a little bit more control over that.
PB: In this situation, you cannot pick your future teammate (Ryan Blaney). If you don’t win the MENCS championship, who would you most want to see win the championship among the other playoff drivers?
BK: Wow…that’s a tough question. Can’t pick a future teammate?
PB: Yep, can’t pick Ryan.
BK: I would say another Ford. That’d be good. Go down party lines.
PB: I don’t blame you. [laughter]
BK: So Kurt or Kevin.
PB: What about Ricky?
BK: Oh Ricky! That’s a great idea, thank you! Yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing Ricky win it. Yeah, I’ll pick Ricky.
PB: Now, say that you are in the final four of drivers at Homestead. Who are the three playoff drivers that you would want to face at Homestead for a championship?
BK: The slowest cars possible. [laughter]
PB: I was going to say the three Fords so at least one of them wins.
BK: No, the slowest cars possible. [laughter] I mean, the competitor in me would want that but then I also wouldn’t want that because I would want to beat the best. Would would I want to race against? There’s not a bad one to pick, that’s the thing. There’s not someone like “I wouldn’t pick him” they’re all pretty good. And you would take pride in beating any one of them.
The thing about the drivers that make it this far is that they’re all really good. And the difference between a guy who wins the championship and the guy who doesn’t is like a sliver. The difference between a guy who’s running for the championship and one who’s in maybe a series or two below is big. So I think you can take pride in beating any one of them to be quite honest
I’m a firm believer that it takes three things to win in this sport and to be successful. [First] Speed, and speed is two things. One is the driver’s ability to slide the car and hit very specific marks. And two, is the engineering on the car. So that’s the basic building block is speed.
And then your next building block is execution. Which is strategy and the ability for the driver and the pit crew to hit things such as pit road speed and the technical aspects of the sport. Pit stops and so forth.
And then there’s the third thing which is the luck factor. So if it’s a three legged stool and you cut out any one of those three, you don’t win. And you don’t need to have good luck, but you can’t have bad luck. And there’s some people who say “I don’t believe in luck.” I think that’s a little bit naive. Because we’ve seen scenario after scenario where…
PB: Well, just look at Homestead last year.
BK: Yeah I mean, things that are just completely outside your control. Jimmie [Johnson] won the championship last year because the two best cars [Carl Edwards and Joey Logano] wrecked each other out. That’s the reality. A couple years before that, Tony Stewart won the championship but he almost lost it when a part flew off another car and went through the front end of his. That’s not his fault, that’s just luck.
PB: I remember Kurt Busch at Homestead losing the tire right when he’s going into pit road and having perfect timing saved him the championship.
BK: Yeah, perfect timing. The wheel fell off and it won him the championship. That’s just, there’s some things you can’t control. You don’t have to have good luck, but you can’t have bad luck.
So if it’s a three-legged stool, obviously the driver isn’t that big of a piece. He’s not the entire piece. I’m a piece but I’m not the entire piece. As much as a lot of people would like to give me credit, which is great, especially on pay day, but I’m just a piece. I’m one component of a team and so when I look at who I would like to race, what was running through my mind when you asked that question, wasn’t necessarily just a driver, it’s the teams I would like to race. I guess that’s where my head is at because I really see this as a team sport even if it may not be seen as one as much.
PB: Now speaking of the team, I read in the news about Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez swapping pit crews for the playoffs (due to Suarez being out of the playoffs and the feeling his crew is faster, swap with Busch for a better chance at winning a championship). Do you like that in terms of maximizing your chances of winning or do you like keeping everything the same because it is a team sport, you have to keep the team you’re with?
BK: It’s interesting, it’s certainly, it doesn’t really draw any parallels to other sports.
PB: Yeah, the Panthers just can’t trade an entire defense to the Ravens if one is in the playoffs and the other isn’t.
BK: Yeah, if a team goes into the playoffs and their special teams suck, and the Ravens are out, you can’t just trade the special teams. That’s a great point. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about that. There’s parts about it where I don’t feel right and there’s parts about it where I do feel right that a team should do everything they can within the rules.
But you know, every sport has its weird idiosyncrasies. And that’s one of them for motorsports. Maybe it’s okay, maybe it’s not. I know one thing, sometimes I just think we have too many damn rules. And I am not in favor of adding more. So if that is the guiding light, I would say “Don’t mess with it. Please, no more rules.”
PB: Now you started in NASCAR as a young man, who was single. Now, you’re getting married and you have a daughter [Scarlett]. Have you noticed your driving style change now that you’ve been in the series for a while and you have a family?
BK: It’s a really interesting and introspective question and honestly, I get it a lot. And it’s extremely difficult to answer because it’s almost like, do you have kids?
PB: I don’t.
BK: What’s most interesting about having a kid is that you don’t really see them grow. You might one day be with them and they’ll learn a new word but there’s no like “Oh, his nose looks different today.” So you don’t really gain perspective on that until you step away.
You might look through pictures or you might go away for six months and come back. That’s when you see it. So when people ask me “Has being married or having a child changed me,” like my perspective is so focused and limited that I almost can’t even answer because my initial reaction is “No,” and then when I reflect on it, of course it has.
PB: Maybe subconsciously it has?
BK: Yeah, I just can’t answer how. And I will be able to answer how when I look back in three or five year windows. But in one and two year windows it’s like “I don’t think so. Maybe.”
PB: It’s just too gradual.
BK: And some of it may be that you’re simply older, you have more experience. That a situation you might see as a rookie, you might react differently than now when you’re a veteran and have seen that.
There is some of that, but I think that’s more limited. I feel smarter in a lot of ways with respect in being able to anticipate, just the wisdom of anticipation. And there’s other things that you feel like risk adverse. I don’t feel any different there. In fact, I would argue that when I first had my daughter I was almost more risk adverse with respect to being really, really hungry.
Because to me at least, and I don’t want to answer for everyone else who’s in my shoes, being married and having a child is actually motivating. It was motivating in a sense that, you know when I won my first championship, I wasn’t married and I didn’t have kids. I didn’t even know my wife at the time. There’s a bit of an emptiness to that. When you get back to the hotel room or get back to your house and you’re like “Big deal, I won a championship.” But what really changed?
PB: You didn’t have someone there close to celebrate it with.
BK: Yeah, so there’s a bit of motivation that comes from it that in some ways think it made me more risk adverse.
PB: I know that Michael Phelps came back to swim in the Olympics and Landon Donovan came back to play soccer because they wanted their kids to watch them compete.
BK: Yeah, those are great examples. So I don’t know if it’s fair for me to fully answer it and I don’t think I have a full answer for it. In a lot of ways, I feel better, not worse. There are some areas where I feel worse. When you’re up at five or six in the morning instead of sleeping in at eight, nine, “Ah, I wish I could get another hour or two of sleep.”
PB: And probably can’t celebrate wins like you used to.
BK: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that [laughter]
PB: I remember the championship celebration you had, that was pretty awesome.
BK: [laughter] Yeah, yeah it was good.
So that’s what I can really name in the moment but I feel like in 10, 15 years from now after I’m done [driving] from this sport, I’ll be able to reflect on that and give a really good answer where right now I’m kind of living it.
PB: If you win the MENCS championship, after you thank your sponsors and all, who will be the first person you thank?
BK: My wife.
PB: I don’t think I need to ask why [laughter]
BK: Happy wife, happy life is what I say.