FOX Sports Exclusive
Keselowski embracing new role
Brad Keselowski has clearly enjoyed his months-long championship celebration.
NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Now, though, he firmly embraces the “defending” part of his NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Insightful and philosophical, he is preparing for a season of change with determination and grit. Intent on carrying the champion’s banner as both an outspoken voice in NASCAR and a driver to contend with on the track, Keselowski is far from resting on his laurels.
The 28-year-old intends to carry that banner through another offseason — and believes he has the experience to do both while pointing out one cannot just rest on his past in a repeat bid.
The team has switched to manufacturer Ford, a new Cup teammate in Joey Logano and a few personnel changes in the building. It is also joining the rest of the sport on developing NASCAR’s new Generation 6 car. All of that could add up to the perfect formula to keeping the team moving forward.
So what will it take to repeat?
“Stick to what got you where you are at — and that was a lot of hard work, dedication, dedication to people,” he said. “I look at the people end of this sport, it’s everything . . . Ford is special to us because of the people and their commitment; I think that’s going to be a key piece.
“We’re still working and we know that what we did last year is not going to be good enough," he said. "We have to step up another level and we have to keep getting better. We know our competition is going to do the same. With the right people and with the right attitude, we can find that. I think we have that, we have that commitment to excellence and that commitment to finding the next level. I know I do inside.”
Make no bones about it, either — Keselowski plans to stay among the sport’s elite. In 2012 he handed team owner Roger Penske his long-coveted first Cup title.
Now, he’s trying to stay on top of what it will take to add to that tally.
“I’m not happy being a guy that wins one championship and then goes away quietly,” he said. “I want to win multiple championships and I’m going to work as hard as I can to make that happen. There’s been a lot of effort already today, before the season even started, to make that happen. If you look at some of the changes we’ve made, not so much changes but additions — bringing in Joey Logano, working on the Nationwide program to solidify two programs again and having Ryan Blaney be part of that — that shows the commitment we all have to improving. Even on my side, I know that guys like Joey and Ryan bring some more youth and hopefully fresh ideas for me to make the team better.
“I’m really looking forward to working with these guys and seeing how I get a little bit better. And who knows, maybe they’ll just go out there and beat my butt, but I’m going to surround myself with the most talent because that’s what got us where we are today — and I feel like we’re working toward that goal here at Penske Racing for 2013.”
Roger Penske agrees. He compares Keselowski personally to former IndyCar standout Rick Mears, seeing things about their driving that are similar — and that make them winners. Among those is Keselowski’s “wide windshield” and intent to always be aware of the moves of the drivers in front of him, not the ones chasing him on the track.
He thinks the team that he has put together will once more be in contention.
“We’ve got a foundation, we’ve got the experience and once you’ve smelled that top spot, like I said at the banquet, this is something you can’t buy," he said. "You don’t get voted in, you win it, and . . . we’re excited and we’re ready.”
“We’ve got a foundation, we’ve got the experience and once you’ve smelled that top spot, like I said at the (Sprint Cup awards) banquet, this is something you can’t buy," he said. "You don’t get voted in, you win it, and . . . we’re excited and we’re ready.”
Keselowski certainly is.
He’s intent on once more being in the hunt for the title as the Chase for the Sprint Cup enters the closing races.
To do that, Keselowski plans to stay true to what got the team in the championship position while also making the subtle changes and growth needed to stay on top.
Despite being in just his fourth season of Cup competition, he embraces the age-old lesson some teams take quite some time to learn — one cannot stand still in NASCAR and remain in charge.
To that end, Keselowski brings a somewhat Zen approach to his 2013 run.
“I think a lot of people say they’re going to have the same approach but don’t keep the same approach,” he said. “There’s a distinct difference. You have to find things to stay motivated and that’s a challenge that our whole team has, to stay motivated. And that’s something that I’m making sure that I continue to have motivation.
“But other than that, the approach is for me to continue to work to have the best people and be surrounded by them and let them make me be a hero,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to drive the hell out of a race car, but I’m nothing without a great car and without a great team that can do pit stops, strategy, whatever it might take on any given weekend. I see no reason to get away from that approach.”
And that is one of the places where he dramatically steps off the path of others — calling pit stops.
With the race on the line, several top drivers say that they want their crew chief to make the final call — with some input of course. The crew chief is following the competitors, often has a better big-picture view of both what is happening on the track with other cars and with the race itself.
He wants to be in charge — win or lose. And humbly accepts both the praise and criticism that follows making such a call.
It’s one of the many ways he has already distinguished himself from the competition.
“When it’s time to make the final play, I want the ball,” he said. “I feel like that’s something winners and champions do. And I might fail; I fail, we all fail. But I want to fail and look back and say at least I took the shot. I didn’t watch as time ran out and the misses that I have along the way make me better and more prepared for the opportunities to come.”
And when it comes to making changes?
Well, Keselowski thinks that just keeps teams sharp.
“There’s something to be said for continuity,” he said before adding, “continuity is good in moderation; at some point you have to continue to improve.”
That applies to NASCAR as a whole, too.
Keselowski is embracing all roles of being a champion, including having more of a voice in the garage. This season, he’ll be a go-to driver for fans and media trying to sort out issues of the day.
He’s always been willing to weigh in, but adding the title to the rhetoric only adds more weight to Keselowski’s opinions.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that those opinions are well-informed and thought-provoking on a wide range of issues.
Or that he’s so willing to embrace the role despite his increased schedule and the on-track competition.
“I care about this sport; I don’t want to just be a champion of a sport that isn’t as strong as it can be,” he said. “I want to be a part of making the sport stronger and I want to be that guy that can stand up and make it better. I want to be a leader in this sport, quite frankly. In order to do that, you’re going to have to be vocal. That’s not for everyone and there’s champions in the past who haven’t done that, but my goal is to be the best I can be and to do something great for this sport and to be great and do great things, you can’t do the same things everyone else has done.
“You have to do things on your own; you have to reach out and take that step and go out on that limb and for me, perhaps, being vocal is one part of that. But if it makes the sport better for us all, I think it is worth it.”
First, though, is that next title.
Keselowski clearly seems to have enjoyed his offseason. From the moment he won the title and embarked on a festive Victory Lane celebration in the season finale to now, he’s spoken like a champion who hasn’t left the fun out of the job.
Now, though, he’s ready to get back to business — the business of becoming the 2013 champion.
“When you look at (the title banner) now and it says 2012 champion, all I can think is that it is not 2012 anymore,” he said. “So New Year’s Day is a big day. Each and every opportunity to really seize the moment of what it means to be a champion is also a moment of self-reflection on what it’s going to take and why it’s important to push hard to do it again.”
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