For some fans, every time they see a Sprint Cup Series driver running in the Nationwide Series, they complain about it. They say that they the experienced, proven drivers are taking a seat up that should be given to a young driver so they get a chance. However, how can a bunch of drivers learn without someone there to teach them the lesson?
That’s the paradox that Brad Keselowski brought up as he discussed how he learned to be a good racecar driver following his win at Bristol Motor Speedway. He says he was fortunate to get the chance to drive for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series.
“During that time span, I was very fortunate to race with some of the best,” he explains. “I don’t think we’ve seen a system that’s existed like that in decades past. We saw Mark Martin obviously in the ’90s. But I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale. It was in Chicago, I believe. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers, 25 or 26, I can’t remember what it was. But that’s what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.”
Keselowski went on to say that is the reason he gets frustrated when Cup drivers take heat for running Nationwide Series races as he says after going through the experience, it was a real character builder.
“If you can run well over there, you can come here and get the job done,” he says. “That series helped me build a lot of character. It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team that I gelled with and that believed in me. That took a little bit of time, for sure.
“But I think now that we have it, I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of racetrack. I was able to learn that – I don’t want to say in obscurity – but in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide side was for me.”
Keselowski also applauds his success to when he was racing in the Late Models. His father didn’t want him to become a ‘one-track jack’ so he made Keselowski travel to a variety of tracks.
“When you go to all these places, my dad used to say that you could take Jeff Gordon to some local racetrack and he’d probably get beat by the local guy because he knows the place so well, and I think he’s right,” he says. “It also helped me build up a little bit of that base like was asked about earlier to where when I got to a touring series like NASCAR I was more prepared.”
Keselowski says the learning experience was frustrating, but he learned a lot from both his dad and uncle during that experience.
“I was learning more on the car side and approach than anything else, spending the time with my dad, who to me is one of the smartest racers that ever was,” he explains. “So I learned a lot from him, more so on the approach side than maybe the driving side, if that makes any sense. Approach as far as what your car needs to be better and how to learn from it, more so than, Hey, you need to be in this gear, drive this line, because I wasn’t very good at listening to him about that kind of stuff.”
As of late, Keselowski has become the king of Bristol, winning two straight races in a row. Keselowski attributes that back to running Toledo Speedway in Toledo, Ohio.
“Medium bank, not quite as high as Bristol, but a fast late model division,” he says. “We ran around that place in 15 seconds. To me, the first lap on this racetrack I ever took felt just like I was in that late model car in Toledo, Ohio. That made me really, really comfortable here from day one.”
This particular win at Bristol meant a lot as Keselowski had come back with something to prove. After playing the pit road speeding lines to his advantage last year, critics were saying it was the only reason that he won.
“I do enjoy the challenge, for sure,” he says of proving people wrong. “That’s what I like about racing in general. I tell this all the time. Racing’s the one thing – Paul (Wolfe) could probably get a pretty good laugh out of this – is the one thing that makes me get up in the morning. That’s how I know it’s special. Maybe not on his timeline, but I still get up earlier than noon. I may get up at 9 a.m. That’s because it’s special. I love the challenge, I love the fight that you have to put up, the man versus machine or man with machine, against other machines and men. It’s cool as hell to me.
“When somebody challenges me, whether it’s fans, media, other drivers, I think that I have the desire beforehand, but it helps me focus in for sure. Of course, it means nothing if you don’t have a great team that you’re surrounded by. I feel very fortunate to have that as well.”