Keselowksi makes name for himself with strong run at Memphis
Brad Keselowski is still looking for full-time work in the truck series. But after an eye-opening run last week at Memphis, his job prospects are looking better than ever, writes John Schwarb.
Brad Keselowski was pounding the phones just a week ago as a young driver looking for work, yet finding that most teams were too busy to chat.
Some of those same teams all of a sudden have found time this week.
He's still a 23-year-old seeking a full-time ride, but his stock has taken a meteoric rise thanks to a memorable weekend in Memphis. One driver's misfortune turned into an opportunity and Keselowski took advantage with remarkable results, earning his first career pole and nearly pulling off the most improbable win of the Craftsman Truck season.
Driving the No. 9 Germain Racing Toyota that was open for one week with the suspension of Ted Musgrave, Keselowski qualified it on the pole and ran up front all night, leading the first 19 laps and then 42 laps late in a battle with Travis Kvapil. Keselowski did everything he could to fight off the 2003 series champion, but Kvapil drove through the No. 9 on the way to the win, sending Keselowski spinning and into a 16th-place finish.
The end was disappointing, but everything that led up to it could prove to be a career-changing night.
"It's hard to paraphrase it, it's so much more important than you can put in words to my career," Keselowski said. "Just getting the call was one thing. To run well was kind of icing on top of the cake. The only thing missing to pull the trifecta [along with the job and the pole] was getting the win, and a lot of the teams, they'd count it as a win."
It was certainly a victory for a driver desperate for seat time.
The No. 9 became available when regular driver Musgrave was suspended for dangerous driving under caution at Milwaukee. Keselowski was at the mile oval that weekend, working the garage for leads, but nothing positive came out of the trip.
"I was at Milwaukee without a job. I was scared, and that's the word I use," Keselowski said. "I didn't know if I was going to get another job. There wasn't anything written in ink on my calendar. There still isn't."
He had competed in truck and Busch races this season, with few highlights. His truck ride with J.L. Pennington lasted two races -- at Atlanta and Martinsville -- with 19th- and 20th-place finishes, respectively. Then the funding dried up, and the team had to turn to another driver, 28-year-old Jason White, who could bring some money to the table.
Keselowski's Busch ride also vanished last month when Keith Coleman Racing could no longer fund the No. 23 Chevrolet. Keselowski drove it in 13 of the first 15 races of this year's Busch schedule and seven races late last year, never finishing better than 24th.
Keselowski started his trucks career in 2004, running for father, Bob, a series competitor in the series' early years and a one-time race winner, in 1997 at Richmond. Brad drove in eight races in '04 and ran the entire schedule in 2005, finishing seventh at Daytona but never again cracking the top 10 in underfunded Fords.
Those are the hard-luck stories that leave drivers working garages and phones, desperate for any chance to get back on a track. Keselowski's desperation paid off when the call came from Germain Racing.
While in Milwaukee he had talked to Germain Racing's Todd Bodine, the defending series champion. Bodine promised to help any way he could, and dropped Keselowski's name when Musgrave's seat came open. The team's first choice to run Memphis was Mark Martin, but a conflict kept the veteran from taking the gig. But he, too, had a name to suggest for the opportunity -- Keselowski.
So it was off to Memphis for a one-off ride that countless drivers would have killed for. Keselowski saw right away how good a chance it was.
"I knew as soon as I walked up, I knew how special it was to do with this deal with Germain. Walking into hauler, into a high-tech computer laboratory, you could tell it was a very well-prepared team," he said. "I've never had anything like that. Just walking around the race truck, it was extremely clean, a brand-new race truck. Everything is put together right-on. It's hard to explain the little subtle differences, but they're there."
There were no subtle differences for Keselowski on the track, as he qualified the No. 9 on the pole ahead of Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner. In the race he proved the qualifying effort was no fluke, keeping the Toyota up front and looking very much like a winner late in the race.
"It was amazing. It just confirms in your mind that you can do it with the right opportunity," said Keselowski, a Michigan native. "They had the right setup and I was a good driver for that place."
All that was missing was the Hollywood ending. Keselowski damaged the front of his truck late in the race while working through lapped traffic, and that allowed the charging Kvapil to get to his bumper and stalk him for several laps. Kvapil got around him once, but Keselowski almost immediately took the spot back at Lap 172. Nineteen laps later, however, Kvapil took advantage of Keselowski's loose truck, pushing him into a spin and driving through the smoke to what would be his second win of the season.
Kvapil apologized profusely in Victory Lane, but Keselowski, several days later, remained unconvinced.
"You don't have to hit anything if you don't want to," he said. "The only thing he could do to beat me without me making a mistake was what he did. If he had gotten beside me, I would have given him the lane. But he wasn't strong enough to do that.
"I was so close. I don't know, the frustrating part is I don't know what I could have done differently. I know what I could have done as far as not getting into that battle with the [lapped truck]; as far as [Kvapil] hitting me, I don't know what I could have done differently. I'm more frustrated at that than anything else."
Perhaps the frustration will wear off as the phone keeps ringing. Nothing is secured yet, but like David Reutimann at Memphis in 2003, who qualified Greg Biffle's Busch car on the pole and parlayed it into a truck ride the following season with Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Keselowski appears to have written another rags-to-riches story.
All thanks to one good weekend in Memphis.
"I don't feel I'm drastically better than I was last week," he said. "But maybe some people realize now that I can do this."
Seven weeks of status quo
The longest uninterrupted stretch of the Craftsman Truck season ended just as it began, with Mike Skinner in front in the championship chase. The Bill Davis Racing driver won three of the first five races to take a 108-point lead, and now after seven more races -- even without winning any of them -- he has a 103-point lead.
In the series' run of seven races from Charlotte in May to Memphis last week, Skinner finished no worse than eighth and was fourth or better five times. Ron Hornaday won twice to overtake Todd Bodine for second in the standings.
This week the series is off, beginning a stretch of every-other-week racing with the schedule resuming July 14 at Kentucky Speedway.
Every week there's another notable stat from Mike Skinner's remarkable season. This week's entry: With 16 laps run up front at Memphis, he has led in all 12 events, tying Jason Leffler (2002) for consecutive races led from the start of a season. Red Horse Racing's Aaron Fike, pulling away in the rookie of the year race, earned his first top-5 with a fifth-place run at Memphis.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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