Commentary

What makes Keselowski tick?

Updated: May 6, 2010, 12:00 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

It is the last day of school and everybody is excited about getting out for the summer -- except for one shy eighth-grade boy. He is nervous, having been told by a group of kids they are going to "get [him]" on his two-block walk home.

So he goes to one of his teachers with whom he has worked closely as a student assistant and they successfully devise a plan to sneak him out.

"He always was the square peg in a round hole," said the teacher, Christine Owoc, now retired. "He was the one that always got bullied, who always got picked on."

Flash forward. The now 26-year-old kid is driving a Sprint Cup car at more than 190 mph down the frontstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway when a fellow competitor clips him from behind. That picked-on kid spins and goes airborne, the car landing on its top so violently it bends the roll cage.

The competitor makes no secret it was deliberate, that he was trying to send a message. Many of his fellow competitors agree it was well deserved because of the problems the kid has caused others in the past year.

The kid still feels picked on.

You've probably figured out that the kid is Brad Keselowski. This piece starts in middle school because that is where the driver of Penske Racing's No. 12 Dodge suggested prior to the 2010 season was the best place to find out what makes him tick.

He actually suggested starting with his middle school principal. Not knowing this person had passed away, and asked what might be revealed, Keselowski smiled and said, "You have to earn your money, man. I want ESPN to keep you. For them to keep you, man, they're gonna want you to do research."

That brings us to Owoc, who taught Keselowski for three years at Reuther Middle School in Rochester Hills, Mich. She described a small, quiet boy who was so sure of what he wanted to do when he grew up at an age when most kids have no clue that it gave others "ammunition to pick on him."

When Keselowski visited Owoc during her last year of teaching, she asked if he ever felt like gloating to those kids about the success he'd become.

"He said, 'No, I have my goals. Things are working out the way I want. I don't worry about what people did to me when I was younger,'" Owoc recalled.

Those that know Keselowski don't expect him to worry about what Carl Edwards did to him on Sunday at AMS any more than he worried about Denny Hamlin doing the same thing in last season's Nationwide Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway or any more than he worried about what kids said in middle school.

Keselowski said Wednesday morning on "The Early Show" on CBS that "at the end of the day it's not going to change the way I drive one bit." He said as a driver, part of his job is to "make the other drivers frustrated, upset."

He's right. The best ones are masters at it.

Keselowski has the raw talent to be one of the best, which is why Rick Hendrick did all he could to keep him from going to Penske.

"This won't slow him down a bit," said Keselowski's father, Bob, an old-school racer who won the 1989 ARCA championship. "He doesn't hold grudges. He's not intentionally trying to cause hard feelings. He's just trying to fit in and do his job."

***

Jokes were flying as Keselowski began his interview session at the preseason media tour in January. Many involved Hamlin and the Christmas card he received from Keselowski proclaiming "peace on earth."

"Was there a fallout?" Keselowski said with a huge grin. "I missed that part."

No, the attention doesn't bother him. He embraces it the way Dale Earnhardt did, the way all who understand the mental aspect of competition do.

"There's a quiet amusement to it, yeah," Keselowski said. "… I enjoy the fun of pulling up behind somebody and knowing that guy has just went, 'Oh, not him!' That part is fun."

For Keselowski it is almost a natural instinct, perhaps one developed from years of being picked on. He learned at an early age that the only way to stop the picking was to fight back.

"I don't know if I kicked ass," Keselowski said as he recalled his youth. "I was involved in some scuffles."

Like him or not for what he does on the track, Keselowski can be quite charming. After an incident with Edwards last season at Memphis, one of the first things Edwards said was, "I like him."

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards & Brad Keselwoski
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireSunday at Atlanta wasn't the first time Brad Keselowski has been spun out -- this time by Carl Edwards -- but it was the most spectacular.

During Tuesday's tire test at Darlington, Elliott Sadler said Keselowski is a "great guy, fun to be around."

Many others agree -- except, that is, on the track.

"Brad's not a dirty driver," Sadler said. "He's just a hard driver. He just takes a lot more than he gives. Drivers have figured it out and said, 'All right, Brad, we've seen you push people around in the Nationwide Series and we're not going to take it up here in Cup.'"

You'll get the same response up and down the garage. Keselowski is a nice guy, but …

"He brings a lot of that on himself," Clint Bowyer said.

There was a time when Keselowski drove for his father's truck team and later an underfunded Nationwide team when he was far more conservative trying to protect inferior equipment so he could race again the next week.

"That took that confidence and enthusiasm away and I lost that for about three or four years," Keselowski said. "That changed me as a person. I feel like I've finally gotten my confidence back."

That confidence often is taken for cockiness and disrespect. It turned into contempt last season after several on-track incidents, none more spectacular than the aerial show created as Keselowski and Edwards came to the finish line in last spring's Cup race at Talladega.

Not that Keselowski did anything wrong at Talladega, where Edwards' car flew into the catch fence as Keselowski took the checkered flag. One easily could blame Edwards because of the way he came down to block.

But when you're the kid being picked on, everything somehow becomes your fault whether it is or not.

"You've got to be careful," Bowyer said. "That reputation is your reputation. You earn it whether it's a good one or bad one."

Just ask Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch. They went through the same thing Keselowski is.

"It's a part of the sport, whether it was that attention or from winning, this is what the sport is about," said Keselowski, buried at 33rd in points with a rough start. "You have to have a level of confidence that you belong and deserve to be here to do this job."

***

Keselowski was leaving NASCAR's Research and Development Center following a preseason meeting with the sport's top officials when one offered a high five.

Then another.

Unlike many of his fellow competitors, NASCAR was pleased with the energy and excitement Keselowski brought to the sport last season with his aggressiveness and freewheeling spirit. They told him the ratings spiked whenever he was in contention, particularly if rival Hamlin was involved.

They didn't exactly discourage him from keeping it up.

"He's exactly what the sport needs," Keselowski's father said. "I can't believe the people that are mad at him. This sport needs the Dale Earnhardts and Tim Richmonds."

The younger Keselowski's unwillingness to accept that young drivers should tone down aggressiveness until earning the respect of veterans makes him a lightning rod for criticism. But did Cup drivers dipping into the Nationwide series last season really have a right to tell somebody competing for a championship to give them more space, to show them more respect?

"I don't know what the problem is," Bob said. "He always was taught to stand up for himself. His first years in the Truck and Nationwide series he was told don't let people push you around, get up on the wheel and don't be intimidated. He got to JR Motorsports and they teach him the same thing.

"Now all of a sudden it's not what you're supposed to do."

Keselowski doesn't drive aggressively to make people mad. He just drives hard, the way his father taught him to. He drives to win, not to be satisfied with a top-15 finish.

Does he occasionally put himself in compromising situations because of that? Sure. One day he'll learn better how to avoid those.

He understands that. He also understands who he is and what makes him do the things he does, that his team loves his competitive fire.

"He's kind of a goofball a little bit, but once he gets inside that racecar, he's a student of the game," crew chief Jay Guy said. "He's in tune with what's going on."

Keselowski's also in tune with who he is. He has been since middle school when kids thought he was dorky because he wasn't big enough or good enough to play football, because he'd rather keep his head under a hood than do normal teenage things.

So maybe Keselowski was right, maybe you do have to go to middle school to understand who he is and why he drives the way he does.

"There's always been a part of me that when I get in that competitive mood it just elevates as a personality to where, for the lack of a better word, you don't take no s---," Keselowski said. "That's where I feel I'm at.

"That's what's fun to me. It's bringing out that part that brings out that edginess, that drive. That's why I love racing, because it has the ability to pull that out of me."

And he's not sneaking away to avoid anybody.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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