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Color Keselowski amazed at qualifying for the Chase

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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LOUDON, N.H. - Leave it to Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for Penske Racing, to provide his own fresh take on what it felt like to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship for the first time.

“It’s like a 1-year-old that got his first box of crayons,’’ said Keselowski, 27, of Rochester Hills, Mich., who earned the first of two wild-card berths after winning three races this season, including two after fracturing his left ankle Aug. 3.

“Just amazed and happy to have them. It’s great. Everything is fresh, new, and a lot of positive momentum.’’

Keselowski charged into the 12-man field by rallying from 21st in the points with five races remaining. He got the first wild-card berth while Denny Hamlin earned the second.

“I think Keselowski is the most impressive [wild card],’’ said Carl Edwards, who has famously clashed with Keselowski in the past.

Two years ago, Keselowski captured the first Sprint Cup victory of his career at Talladega by holding his low line sprinting toward the finish line and upending Edwards, sending him hurtling into the catch fence. Later that season, at Atlanta, Edwards reciprocated when he punted Keselowski and sent him careening into the fence.

Neither driver was hurt in the incidents.

“I mean, to come from 21st in the points, and scoring amazing finishes here the last couple of months, that’s been pretty impressive,’’ Edwards said. “It just goes to show you, you don’t know who’s going to step up, figure something out, and be tough to beat.’’

Keselowski wrapped up his wild-card berth by posting five consecutive top-five finishes: a win at Pocono, Pa., in his first race after injuring his ankle; a second on the demanding road course at Watkins Glen; a third at Michigan, his home track; a watershed victory at Bristol, Tenn.; and a sixth at Atlanta Sept. 6.

Keselowski was recognized for his torrid stretch drive by winning the third-quarter vote for Driver of the Year. Keselowski earned 10 first-place votes and scored 117 points to finish ahead of IndyCar Series driver Will Power, who earned five first-place votes for 108 points, giving car owner Roger Penske a 1-2 finish on the ballot.

“I am just one part of this team,’’ said Keselowski, who is joined in the Chase by Penske teammate Kurt Busch, the No. 7 seed. “Winning the third-quarter Driver of the Year was a great accomplishment for this team. It’s nice when hard work is recognized, but we’re after the bigger prize.’’

Last year, Keselowski won the Nationwide Series title to deliver Roger Penske his first NASCAR championship.

Now, having climbed to sixth in the Chase points with his fifth-place finish in Monday’s rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski will set his sights on the Sprint Cup trophy when the Chase resumes with Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“We want to be the team holding the trophy in Homestead [Fla.], to give Mr. Penske his first NASCAR Cup Series championship,’’ Keselowski said. “It was an honor to give him his first NASCAR championship last year in the Nationwide Series. We know how to win a title and I think that will serve us well over the next nine races.’’

There seemed to be some concern about Keselowski’s chances of even making the Chase after he fractured his left ankle last month at Road Atlanta during a crash at a test session in preparation for Watkins Glen.

But Keselowski wasn’t concerned.

“This team works as hard as any team I’ve been a part of and I didn’t want them to think they couldn’t count on me, even with an injury,’’ he said. “I didn’t get back in the car to make a statement. I got back in the car because good teams rally around each other when the chips are down.

“All we have is each other in this sport, and I wanted them to know that I would hold up my end of the deal.’’

Keselowski’s grit and determination were born of his experience toiling for his working-class family’s racing business, K-Automotive, which was operated by his father and uncle.

“My dad and uncle were not ones to baby you, that’s for sure,’’ said Keselowski. “We all know, every one of us, that racing is a dangerous way to make a living. Injuries can happen.

“One thing I learned from my family is to push through when you may not be at your best. There’s a lot of people that work their tails off to get these cars to the track and I wanted them to know that they could count on me, even when I’m not 100 percent.’’

Now that he’s made the Chase, Keselowski feels good about his chances.

With tracks coming up such as Kansas, where he gambled on fuel mileage and won the inaugural STP 400 June 5, and this weekend at NHMS, where he won the pole position in record fashion for last year’s Sylvania 300, Keselowski feels primed to make another climb in the standings.

“We still have a ways to go,’’ he said. “We’ve got what I feel like are some good races coming up for us in the Chase - obviously going back to Kansas, which we ran good at even before we won it on fuel mileage.

“I look at tracks like Martinsville, I think we were really good there as well. I think we’re going to come back at those races and be really strong.

“I think there’s not really a bad track for us coming up in the Chase. And I feel like we’re really on a high note and we’ve got as good a shot as anybody else.

“I really believe that.’’

Given all Brad Keselowski has overcome to reach this point of the season, who can doubt this dark horse now?

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

Today's NHMS schedule
8 a.m.
- Speedway spectator gates open

10-11:20 a.m. - NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice

11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. - NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice

1:15-2:30 p.m. - NASCAR Camping World Truck Series final practice

3:10 p.m. -Sylvania 300 qualifying

5 p.m. -NASCAR K&N Pro Series East New Hampshire 125