Commentary

Brian Keselowski living the dream

Updated: February 19, 2011, 3:47 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's 7:50 a.m. on Friday and Brian Keselowski is standing outside the Sprint Cup garage with all the other mechanics, engineers and crewmen waiting for the gate to open.

Only Keselowski isn't just a mechanic, engineer or crewman. He's a driver, too.

"We've got things to fix," Keselowski said as a bright morning sun glistened off his wire-rimmed glasses. "Just because we made the Daytona 500 on Sunday doesn't mean there isn't work to be done."

There's no better feel-good story at Daytona International Speedway than this one of the 29-year-old older brother of Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski earning his way into the Great American Race with a 4-year-old car, one set of tires and a ragtag pit crew.

In case you missed it, Brian was all but headed home late in Thursday's second qualifying race. He was in the back of the pack, making his earlier decision to check out of his hotel look like a good one.

[+] EnlargeBrian Keselowski
AP Photo/Terry RennaBrian Keselowski qualified for his first Daytona 500, thanks in part to little brother Brad.

Then an amazing thing happened. Brad spun out with about 21 laps to go and found himself in the back with his brother, who still considers him "kind of a snotty little kid."

But whatever you thought of the oft-controversial Brad before Thursday, you had to love what he did after that. He literally pushed the back of big brother's plain white No. 92 Dodge through the field, helping him to a fifth-place finish and a spot on the sixth row of Sunday's race.

"I couldn't see," Brian said, when asked what the final laps were like. "I was crying in the car."

He was crying outside the car, too. So was his mom.

This is more than a story about an underdog making the biggest race of the NASCAR season. It is a story about the perseverance of a Michigan racing family that has struggled to survive since John Keselowski started a race team in 1961 with his sons, Ron and Bob, who's the father of Brad and Brian.

"It's really neat to see a family that close and to have a brother pushing him up there; nobody else probably would have gotten back there and done that," 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick said. "Usually, one thing leads to another. Hopefully, this does.

"The Keselowski family, you couldn't ask for better people."

Brian and his father/crew chief left their Statesville, N.C., shop a week ago Wednesday in an old, rented Chrysler van. Ron drove down from Michigan on Monday to help out. Family friend Andy Hillenburg, who runs North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., drove down to spot.

"Everything was last-minute," Brian said. "I didn't even think we would make it here."

Brian certainly didn't think he would be in the garage on Friday. Unable to find another room in Daytona, he spent Thursday night with his truck driver, who has family about 12 miles away.

Not that he needed a bed.

"I didn't fall asleep until 2 o'clock and woke up at 6:30," Brian said.

An hour later he was going through the tunnel to wait for the garage to open. Ten minutes after it opened, he was on hands and knees with a rag, cleaning the front bumper of his car.

"This is all I've ever done and all I've ever known," Brian said. "I don't know any different to sit in the motor home until 10 in the morning [like most drivers]."

[+] EnlargeBrian Keselowski
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyBrian Keselowski happily rearranged decals on his race car after sponsor Discount Tire came aboard.

Brian doesn't have a motor home, for starters. He also doesn't have a backup engine or a second set of tires other than a set discarded by Penske Racing. But he does have a sponsor -- at least for the Daytona 500 -- in Discount Tire, which signed on at the 11th hour.

"All the guys in the garage know what Brian has to work with," said Dave Blaney, who made the race for Tommy Baldwin Racing. "It's not much."

Brian has a 2006 Dodge, the eighth Car of Tomorrow off the assembly line at what was Evernham Motorsports. He practiced, qualified and drove all 150 miles of Thursday's race on the same set of tires.

But he doesn't plan to start-and-park on Sunday. He'll earn every penny of the guaranteed $243,000 for starting the race.

"Hell no, I won't park," Brian said. "Not unless that thing blows all to hell."

Brian entered the 500 because he was tired of starting-and-parking in Nationwide Series, in which last-place money wasn't enough to keep his team going. Had he not made the 500, he would have parked his entire organization for a while.

"We came in this thing on a wing and a prayer," Brian said. "I really didn't think it was going to work."

Now Brian is parked in the garage next to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who seemingly has more engineers and mechanics around his car than the space shuttle does just down the Florida coast.

"So we'll have a lot of people around us," said Brian, referring to the fans who typically crowd to see NASCAR's most popular driver.

Fans could do a lot worse than take a peek into Brian's garage. They'll see what NASCAR used to be like when the driver had as much grease under his fingernails as anybody.

If they spend a few minutes talking to him, they'll learn just how fine a line there is between being discovered and being left behind. Brian, you see, was in line to drive a Nationwide car for Keith Coleman Racing at California four years ago, but because he hadn't competed on the big tracks NASCAR wouldn't approve him.

So the organization turned to Brad, who was approved because he'd competed in some Truck series events. That eventually led to Brad's Nationwide ride with JR Motorsports and ultimately to a full-time Cup ride at Penske Racing in the famous Miller Lite No. 2.

Every racer that's ever driven anything in their whole life wants to run the Daytona 500. This just goes to show them it doesn't matter the car you get, you can put it together and have a chance at this.

-- Brian Keselowski

"If roles could have been reversed, there's a possibility I could be in the same position [Brad's] in now," Brian said.

Yes, there is a bit of brotherly jealously. But things have gotten better since "we don't live together."

Relations definitely improved on Thursday. Brian knows he wouldn't be in the 500 if Brad hadn't pushed him. Maybe they'll be able to hook up on Sunday, too, since Brad will start two rows back in the 16th position.

But neither ever talked about nor imagined the possibility growing up.

"But I did dream about the day that we didn't beat each other up," Brad said.

He laughed. So did everyone within earshot.

It's a great story, one that catches the imagination -- and reality -- of almost everyone who has walked through a racetrack garage.

"That's what our sport is about," said Jeff Burton, who won the second qualifying race Thursday. "I really get frustrated and perturbed and upset when I hear people say our sport doesn't have personality. They don't know what the hell they're talking about."

Brian has more personality than most because he's uncensored. He's not like a driver who has been through media training or had cosmetic surgery to polish his image. He wears glasses because he has never trusted contacts after having one fall out in a race. He's doesn't wear designer blue jeans or have an entourage.

While Brad had a police escort out of the track on Thursday, Brian "couldn't get out of the tunnel for a while."

Brian doesn't mind. He'll sit in line to get in or out of Phoenix International Raceway next week if he has to. He's already put in an entry for that race and has friends scrambling back at the shop to get a car ready.

Barring a major setback, he'll make the trip and continue living this dream.

"Every racer that's ever driven anything in their whole life wants to run the Daytona 500," Brian said. "This just goes to show them it doesn't matter the car you get, you can put it together and have a chance at this."

A chance is all Brian wants. It's why he was up at the crack of dawn standing outside the Cup garage gate with mechanics and engineers.

"I really don't feel like I'm a whole lot different than those guys," Brian said. "I don't put myself on a different level. I'm in here working just like all these guys in the garage are working. It just happens, I get in the race car and drive it."

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

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