Fast Learner

Once known as a controversial daredevil, Brad Keselowski is learning to downshift without slowing down

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It was a simple text message from his girlfriend, one of many between the couple, but this one struck Brad Keselowski. As he returned home Tuesday from a tire test at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, one sentence lingered. It made him ponder his past, present and future.

Paige White had taken their 6-week-old daughter to the pediatrician that day and texted that the baby had gained 1.5 pounds since the last visit.

Keselowski’s mind raced after the news.

For a driver who has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, 17 races and $43 million in career earnings, the growth of his first child made him reflect upon his development. It continued after he got home that night.

“You see them grow up, you see them get bigger and every step is measured, but as an adult it’s much harder to measure growth … because it’s not always in a tangible form like it is with a baby in weight, length and so forth,’’ Keselowski said, leaning back in a chair in his spartan office at Team Penske.

Look deep enough and Keselowski’s evolution is evident. Bruised by discouraging personal encounters, burdened by past failures, Keselowski raced with what his mother called a “desperation” that left a path of disgruntled drivers and crinkled cars early in his NASCAR career. That drive also made him a champion.

The daredevil on the track remains. The youthful racer, though, has morphed into a 31-year-old who seeks more on the track and off. Once so focused on wins that he didn’t fret about friendships with drivers, Keselowski has been open about bridging a gap with a frequent foil. Once so outspoken that he earned a private meeting with NASCAR Chairman Brian France in 2013, Keselowski concedes he’s “a bit more reserved” these days.

He’s also grown more confident. Keselowski is not afraid to state that his “life goal” remains to win another series championship.

“I want to be capable of being a Hall of Fame racecar driver, and I don’t think one championship is enough,’’ he said. “I’d (also) like to win a race at every racetrack.’’

He’s won at 12 of the 23 tracks that will host Sprint Cup races this season. He has not won a Cup race at Daytona International Speedway — where the series races Sunday night in NBC’s return to broadcasting NASCAR.

Another championship would make Keselowski the 16th driver in series history to have multiple titles. All the multi-season champions who are eligible will have been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame by next year when Terry Labonte is enshrined.

Winning at least one race at each track ranks among the sport’s most difficult accomplishments. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who has 92 career wins, has not won at every track on the schedule.

Keselowski’s personal goal, though, is loftier than his professional goals.

He wants to “live long enough to see my own children’s children have children.’’

That would make him a great-grandpa.

“If I could live that long, I’d be happy,’’ said Keselowski, dressed in shorts and a Team Penske athletic shirt before a workout. “I’ve spent a lot of time on that, Paige would probably tell you perhaps too much time, defining how I’m going to do that.’’

As he talks, he recalls how Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, once described Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the most “complicated uncomplicated” man he’d met, the point being that Earnhardt has a had a complicated life yet managed a simple approach to all that he’s faced.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the most simple complicated man,’’ Keselowski said.

Say again?

“You asked what my life goals were, and I could only name two, but how I want to get there is super complicated,’’ he said.

“There are just two simple goals, to win a few races, to win a championship. And to have a healthy, happy family that puts me in a position where I can grow each and every day. It’s really extremely simple. I’m not looking for anything more complicated than that out of life. But how to get there is complicated, so that makes me a very simple-complicated person. At least in my own eyes.’’

* * * * * *

Dawn Nicholas didn’t doubt that her younger brother could rise to NASCAR’s highest levels. Even when all looked lost.

“It was like he was born with this vision in his life and he stuck with it,’’ she said, standing in what will be the lobby of the new race shop for Keselowski’s Camping World Truck Series team.

The walls are bare. Construction dust and supplies dot various areas where vehicles will be assembled, massaged and manicured. Soon the building will house an organization that has won three of the first nine Truck races of the season.

The building’s rise is evidence of Keselowski’s determination. He always had the skill. Ten-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, recalls Keselowski’s dad, also a former ARCA champ, telling him often that the youngster was “really special” as a driver. Yet, local short tracks across the country are littered with talented drivers who don’t make it any higher whether because of circumstances, lack of funding or they didn’t want it bad enough.

There were plenty of times Keselowski could have failed and just been one of those local short track racers instead of winning Sprint Cup and Xfinity titles.

“I didn’t particularly enjoy that,’’ Keselowski said of his early trials, “but it definitely made me a stronger person and defines part of who I am.’’

Two races into the 2006 Truck season, Keselowski was out of a ride because his family’s team was out of money.

Kay Keselowski says the youngest of her five children should not hold himself responsible for the team’s demise.

“As a young person, he felt like, ‘I can do this, I can save my family team,’” Kay Keselowski said. “It was doomed. There was no way for that to work out. He takes that responsibility. Every time I hear him say it, it breaks my heart. None of it was his fault. He did everything he could with what we had to work with.”

Keselowski got a few rides with underfunded teams that year and then had a full-time ride in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2007. That team ran out of money less than halfway through the season.

He kept looking for rides but admits he thought about a possible career in the military, following friends and family. Just in case.

Keselowski’s break came in June 2007 when he filled in for one race after another driver was suspended for an on-track incident. Keselowski started on the pole at Memphis and led 62 laps before finishing 16th after contact from another competitor spun him.

Earnhardt, impressed by Keselowski’s performance there and in other races, hired the youngster days later to drive for JR Motorsports.

Challenges remained. Although he finished third in points in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2008, Keselowski had no finishes better than 22nd in the first three races of 2009.

Keselowski knew he had to win to get a Sprint Cup ride because he wasn’t surrounded by corporate backing. As the economy worsened, teams looked for drivers who brought sponsorship more than those with only a helmet.

He scored a dramatic Sprint Cup win that year at Talladega, but he knew he needed to do more.

That year also featured a series of on-track incidents with Denny Hamlin that mushroomed in the final two Xfinity races. Hamlin said he got into Keselowski’s car at Phoenix International Raceway and Keselowski returned the favor. Hamlin spun. Hamlin called Keselowski a “complete moron’’ and vowed to spin him at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the next race.

Hamlin spun Keselowski the following week.

“I think you get older, you get wiser and you figure out what it takes to be successful at this level of racing,’’ Hamlin said. “I felt like (Keselowski) raced with a chip on his shoulder, as well as he felt like he needed to prove himself and get himself in a good ride. Once he got to that top level, I thought that his attitude and the way that he raced on track changed.’’

They raced for the win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in March without incident. Hamlin won and Keselowski was second.

“The respect he paid me at Martinsville was two guys racing for a win,’’ Hamlin said. “Maybe you rough someone up or rub them a little bit, but you don’t take them out. He did all those things and, obviously, if I’m in the same situation as him, second to him, I would do the same and pay that respect back in that type of way.’’

* * * * * *

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Hamlin isn’t the only driver who has had a conflict with Keselowski through the years. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards also have had high-profile spats with the Rochester Hills, Mich., native that went beyond one race.

Keselowski has shared stories about his relationship with both drivers in revealing blogs.

He recounted how he got to know Edwards when Edwards was racing in the Truck series and Keselowski worked on his family team. Keselowski noted that members of his family’s Truck team taped a picture of Edwards inside Keselowski’s locker “because they said I just wanted to be like Carl.’’

Keselowski admits he was naive at the time but recalled Edwards saying he’d help Keselowski but nothing ever happened, leaving Keselowski disappointed.

In a blog about his relationship with Kyle Busch, Keselowski recounts the jealously he felt when Busch got a Truck ride through Roush Racing’s tryouts and Keselowski was not offered a chance.

Keselowski noted how he decided to approach Busch to talk one weekend at a Truck event in 2001 and was put off by Busch’s indifference toward him.

Keselowski wrote: “That first experience with Kyle impacted a lot more than my interactions with him. It shaped the way I dealt with other drivers from that point forward. In some ways, it probably still does.’’

In both cases, Keselowski sought to be friendly with competitors, only to be disappointed by reality. Maybe Keselowski expected too much. Maybe other factors intervened. Whatever the cause, the incidents wounded Keselowski.

“I’ve always been cautious with how I deal with other drivers,’’ he said. “When you get on the racetrack, one of your worst enemies is to look in the mirror and see somebody and either one, be intimated by them or two, feel like you owe them something as a friend or any dynamic because that always makes you race a different way that’s maybe not advantageous to your or your team.’’

Yet, in his blog about Busch after Busch was injured at Daytona in February, Keselowski wrote: “Somehow, we’ve never had much of a relationship at all. I’m not sure why, and quite honestly, I wish things were different.’’

Earnhardt, a close friend, understood Keselowski’s point in that blog.

“I felt the same way when me and Kyle weren’t getting along,’’ Earnhardt said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like showing up at the racetrack and that being in the background, festering and having to talk about it and he would make a comment and I would have to answer to it or I’d make a comment. It was just going on and on and it was so annoying. Me and him found some middle ground. I’m sure Kyle and Brad will too.

“You’d rather have respect and common understanding of each other. You don’t have to be best friends. You can race each other harder and more competitively when you respect each other.’’

While Keselowski and Edwards have mended their differences, Busch and Keselowski have not. Although they share many similarities — aggressive young drivers and owners of Truck teams, among other things — Busch and Keselowski could be destined to be like former champions Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. Petty and Allison were known for their fierce rivalry and didn’t truly become close friends until well after both had quit racing.

* * * * * *

Brad Keselowski saw a hole. So he went for it. That’s his job. Go for the win. It was a green-white-checkered restart at Texas Motor Speedway in November. As Keselowski made his move, he and Jeff Gordon made contact, cutting Gordon’s tire. Gordon spun, losing any hope of winning. Jimmie Johnson went on to win the race. Keselowski finished third.

Gordon stopped his car near Keselowski’s on pit road after the race and expressed his displeasure about Keselowski’s move. After a brief encounter, Keselowski was pushed back toward Gordon by Kevin Harvick. That triggered a melee between the teams that resulted in three of Gordon’s crew being suspended and one of teammate Kasey Kahne’s crew being suspended. NASCAR did not penalize Keselowski or any of his crew.

On the plane trip home that night, Keselowski turned to girlfriend Paige White, the daughter of a short-track racer, and asked her about the post-race incident.

“I knew how I felt but sometimes you just want someone else’s opinion that is close to you and won’t b.s. you, and Paige isn’t the type to b.s. me,’’ Keselowski said. “She doesn’t tell me what I want to hear. I respect that. I looked over and asked if I handled it right. She looked over me and said, ‘Yeah, I think you did.’ I haven’t second-guessed, not one day since.’’

She has provided a good sounding board for Keselowski, encouraging him to share some of his deeply personal stories in blogs and to enjoy his wins more, something he’s struggled with at times. He once wrote in a blog that he has had difficulties letting “my emotion all the way out” after wins because he understands how many drivers never get the chance to make it to NASCAR or win a race in the top series.

“I want him to celebrate his wins,’’ White said. “I want him to be excited and happy with his team about that. Just when he says those things, it makes me think he doesn’t get excited like he feels guilty or something. I hope … he feels a little differently about wanting to celebrate if it’s because he has me to celebrate with or I’ve encouraged him to do that I don’t know.’’

The celebrations, now, last beyond the photos.

“We get home, it doesn’t matter what time, if he wins the race it’s like, ‘Let’s watch it,’ and so you pop popcorn and make it like a movie,’’ she said. “We’ll stay up all night and watch the race.’’

* * * * * *

Keselowski unlocks his office at Team Penske and is greeted by two of the surfboard trophies from his most recent Sprint Cup win in March at Auto Club Speedway.

He led only one lap that day but passed Kurt Busch for the victory to all but clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The trophies cover his desk — one cannot have a conversation sitting across from each other because they are so tall and wide. It takes two people to move one of the trophies on to a cart to be delivered to crew chief Paul Wolfe’s office. Keselowski reflects on the ups and downs of his career, the lessons — sometimes painful — from the journey and sees the crucible that forged the man he is today.

“I look back 10 years ago and the first thing I think is, ‘Gosh, I wish I could time travel,’‘’ he says. “If I could time travel and do it all over again but kind of know what’s going to happen before it happens — which you can’t — I always catch myself in the middle of that daydream. I don’t know if things could have gone any better than they did.

“Every struggle is a blessing that maybe you don’t realize at the time, as long as you have … a positive mental attitude to tackle the struggle, to see the opportunity and to capitalize on it.’’

For all the change he’s experienced through the years, there is something, he says, that remains the same. It’s an honest assessment.

“My ambition hasn’t changed one bit,’’ he says.