No regrets for Brad Keselowski
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After Carl Edwards' car flew into the catch-fence on the final lap of last year's spring Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, violently throwing pieces of debris into the grandstands and injuring seven spectators, several changes came to NASCAR.
Talladega and Daytona International Speedway raised the height of their catch-fences from 14 to 22 feet. The governing body explored more seriously why cars go airborne, with data suggesting the new spoiler and rear shark fin will decrease the chance of a repeat of what we saw with the wing.
But one thing didn't change.
If the same circumstances occur Sunday at the 2.5-mile track in Alabama, the 26-year-old driver says he'll do the same thing again.
"Without hesitation," Keselowski said.
Not that he wants to bring harm to anybody or cause a wreck. Keselowski just doesn't believe he did anything wrong, and he shouldn't.
"And I wouldn't blame him for doing it [again]," said Ryan Newman, who had a bird's-eye view of the incident as Edwards' car landed on his hood. "There was nothing wrong with what racing happened. What was wrong was the car went airborne."
Keselowski also understands that when you have an opportunity to go for a win you have to take it, because you never know when the next chance will come or what will come from it.
Think about it. Had Keselowski backed off and finished second, maybe even third or fourth, would Roger Penske have gone after him so hard to drive the No. 12 this season? Would sponsor Verizon have been so gung-ho about putting a young, unproven driver behind the wheel?
Would Rick Hendrick have offered Keselowski an opportunity to stay in the Hendrick Motorsports family?
"It solidified me from a team owner's perspective that, if I had the right car and the right opportunity, I would be headstrong enough to do what it takes to win," Keselowski said as he re-lived the last lap. "Almost every driver in Cup at one time or another will have a car that is capable of winning. Sometimes they take advantage of it. Sometimes they don't."
Let's revisit what happened. Keselowski and Edwards were locked in a two-car draft as they chased down leaders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman in the closing laps. As they approached the white flag, Keselowski fully expected Earnhardt and Newman to block and break their run.
"They never did," Keselowski recalled. "When we got to the start-finish line and our run was still going, I remember being almost in shock, like, 'Oh, my God! I'm going to have a great day here.'
"By the time I got to the middle of [Turns] 1 and 2, I was thinking, 'I've got this thing won as long as the yellow doesn't come out.' I knew I had Carl in an extremely vulnerable position. I didn't think Carl would risk his own well-being to do it the way he did."
Edwards did, going low to block. That triggered a chain reaction that sent chills up and down the spine of the sport -- and changes to Keselowski's career, albeit not the ones he expected.
Keselowski went to Talladega a year ago believing he was going to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 car at HMS. He felt even better about it after the win.
Why not? Preliminary talks already had begun. He had a meeting scheduled with Hendrick when he returned to North Carolina.
"At the time before Mark had committed, I had been told I was going to drive the 5 car in 2010," Keselowski said. "We hadn't come to terms on that, but we were going to work on that in the next few months."
People race me hard, which I'm OK with and always have been OK with. But I don't have to worry about my competitors trying to push me around anymore, which is pretty cool.” -- Brad Keselowski
What Keselowski didn't know, but learned later, was that Martin had told Hendrick the week before he wanted to return for not just one season, but two.
"So I guess in the back of my head after winning Talladega I had hoped that would push me over the edge," Keselowski said.
Instead, it pushed him in another direction, to another owner and manufacturer. As much as Keselowski wanted to stay with HMS, he couldn't see himself taking a deal similar to the one Hendrick recently gave Kasey Kahne. He couldn't see himself starting over one year with an interim team waiting for Martin's seat to come open and then starting over again, as Kahne apparently will do in 2011 and 2012.
Winning the way he did also pushed Keselowski into the spotlight of controversy. From that moment on any aggressive move he made was scrutinized.
"That was the beginning of it, without a doubt," Keselowski said. "It labeled me as a guy that was a take-no-prisoners, aggressive driver. I don't think that was the case, but it gave me that perception."
OK, maybe it just strengthened the perception. As Newman said, "He was an aggressive driver before then."
After several run-ins with Denny Hamlin and Edwards late in the 2009 Nationwide season, things finally came to a head earlier this year at Atlanta. Heading to the closing laps, Edwards, more than 100 laps down, sent Keselowski's car into an airborne spin that was almost as scary as the one at Talladega.
That ignited more questions about cars lifting off and sparked more debate about Keselowski as a driver.
But Keselowski didn't change. If anything, because he was a victim and not the aggressor this time, opinions changed about him. Not all for the good, but they changed nevertheless.
"I've achieved a level of respect, not necessarily respected in people believing what I'm doing is the right thing, but more so a level of respect that people know that if they run me the wrong way there's going to be trouble," said Keselowski, who is 25th in the Cup standings and second in Nationwide. "Some would not call that respect. Some would call that intimidation.
"I don't really feel I'm to that point of intimidation, but I rarely get messed with these days. People race me hard, which I'm OK with and always have been OK with. But I don't have to worry about my competitors trying to push me around anymore, which is pretty cool."
Edwards, who had a heart-to-heart with Keselowski and NASCAR after the Atlanta incident, seemingly has grown comfortable with his rival. He even seems open to teaming up with Keselowski at Talladega should another opportunity arise like last season. "That was just wild," Edwards said as he recalled the finish. "[I] was very close to winning my first race at a superspeedway, and I learned a lot from it. I hope going back that I can find somebody to work with those last couple laps, whether it's Brad or somebody else.
"It would be nice to be in that position again and have another chance to do that, and I think we will, eventually. But that was a really dramatic finish."
It was so dramatic that it sparked changes to the sport, but one thing apparently never will change.
And that's a good thing in an era when so many drivers conform to what's expected of them.
"I'd do the same thing again," Keselowski reiterated. "Trust me in what I say: without hesitation."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.