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Brad Keselowski’s journey to Darlington win was years in the making

To understand how Brad Keselowski got to Victory Lane last weekend for his first win with his own Cup team, one has to go back in time.

Not just to three years ago when Team Penske’s winningest driver left for Roush Fenway Racing, which was in the midst of a years-long winless drought.

Not just to seven years ago when Keselowski shut down his Truck team, which served as a launching pad for Cup drivers Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

And not just to 17 years ago when Keselowski, out of a ride after his Busch Series team folded, got a one-race opportunity with a Truck team that revived his career.

No, to understand the genesis of Keselowski’s victory with RFK Racing this past weekend at Darlington Raceway, one has to start at the beginning — Feb. 12, 1984 — the day Keselowski was born.

That’s also the day Ricky Rudd’s car flipped violently in the Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway. Rudd’s car slid down the track, got airborne, tumbled and pirouetted before slamming to a stop in the frontstretch infield grass.

After having vision problems when he was back in the car, Rudd duct-taped his eyelids opened and finished seventh in the Daytona 500 days later. He won the next week at Richmond.

Just like Rudd, Keselowski would overcome an injury to win. He broke his ankle in a savage crash during testing when his brakes failed and he ran head-on into a concrete barrier at Road Atlanta. Four days later, he won a 500-mile race at Pocono in 2011.

Keselowski’s mother, Kay, once noted the symmetry between Rudd and her son. Rudd was hard-nosed, fiercely independent and became a Cup driver/owner. Kay Keselowski’s son shares those qualities.

Jimmie Johnson will be a part of NBC’s Indy 500 broadcast and select NASCAR Cup races this season.

Brad Keselowski also had a lifetime of racing experience before he ran his first race. His father, Bob, had only one job outside of racing. He worked two months at a car dealership to have enough money for tires when he went to race at Daytona in 1971. By age 14, Keselowski was serving as the engineer for his dad’s team.

The family owned a race team until 2006 when it shut down because of lack of funds. He got a full-time Busch Series ride in 2007 but the team folded in June. Keselowski contemplated not going to to Milwaukee two weeks later for a Busch/Truck doubleheader weekend — it’s no fun for a driver to be at the track without a ride. His father convinced him to go.

That weekend, Ted Musgrave intentionally wrecked a competitor in the Truck race and was later suspended a race. Keselowski was asked to fill in for Musgrave the next weekend at Memphis. Keselowski won the pole and led nearly a third of the race before finishing 16th. He did well enough to earn a three-race trial with JR Motorsports that stretched another two seasons.

Keselowski operated a Truck team from 2008-17 — it ran full-time beginning in 2011 — before closing its doors. Even after that, he reiterated that he wanted to be a team owner.

Keselowski wins big after Buescher, Reddick tangle
Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte discuss Brad Keselowski breaking his 110-race winless drought at Darlington while analyzing the on-track incident between Chris Buescher and Tyler Reddick.

“I want to be positioned to have the best opportunities possible when I get done being a race car driver, and one of those opportunities is to be a team owner,” he said in August 2017.

When the chance came to become a part owner of what is now RFK Racing starting in 2022, Keselowski took it even though he was leaving a race-winning opportunity at Team Penske.

“I heard from some fans, I can’t believe you’re throwing your career away, and then you’re kind of like, ‘Well, maybe they’re right,’” Keselowski said Sunday. “But then on the flip side I was looking at the sport and I’m just thinking to myself that if I dig deep here, I can get this thing where it needs to be.

“There’s been a lot of deep digging moments. That’s been part of the journey. They’re not all fun. In fact a lot of them aren’t fun. But it’s part of the journey.”

Even when the 2022 season started, questions remained about Keselowski’s decision. Those grew louder after Austin Cindric — the driver who replaced Keselowski at Team Penske — won the Daytona 500 that year.

“I had a lot of people that poked at me when Cindric won the 500,” Keselowski said. “ I had a lot of people poking at me, ‘Oh, that could have been you in that car.’ Same thing when Joey (Logano) and Blaney won the championship last year and the year before, and they’re right.

“But I’m not upset about that. I’m happy for those guys. Like I said, I still have meaningful relationships with Joey and with Blaney, and I’m happy to see them be successful.

“But I’m in a different place. I’ve learned so much over the last three years about people and culture and organizations and the technical aspects of what it takes to build a race team that can win, and that’s the action I crave, always craved, is being a part of that journey.

“I have that. That makes winning so much more special and more impactful to me personally.”

Keselowski began to create that culture upon joining the team after the 2021 season. Keselowski looked to raise expectations for an organization that had gone winless in its last 163 races at the time. That meant being determined, aggressive and forthright but also not fearful of failure.

“Fail forward means not being afraid to fail but learning from it and getting better,” Keselowski said in November 2021. “I told the team in one my speeches, ‘I’m not afraid of failing. I’m afraid of not trying.’”

He’s helped rebuild RFK Racing. Resources have been upgraded. Personnel added.

“The biggest thing is just he’ll keep asking questions what we need tool-wise and just continuing to try to build relationships is how we get better,” crew chief Matt McCall said of Keselowski. “I think the amount of effort behind the scenes is crazy, the amount of hours the guy puts in. And still drives the race car every Sunday as hard as he can.”

Larson thrilled by win, Buescher agonized by loss
Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton analyze an "amazing" photo finish at Kansas for Kyle Larson yet "heartbreaking" for Chris Buescher, how the winner is determined in NASCAR, what led to such a close conclusion, and more.

But the 2012 Cup champion has not changed everything at RFK Racing. He kept Chris Buescher as his teammate.

“He’s significantly underrated,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know why nobody else tried to steal him from us. When we re-signed him last year, I thought for sure somebody else was going to make a run at him, and to my knowledge they never did.

“I don’t know why nobody else sees in him what I see in him, which is a guy that’s a winner that you put in the right situation can be a multiple-time not just race winner but champion with the right equipment.”

Buescher has won four races since Keselowski joined and nearly won the last two, losing by .001 seconds at Kansas to Kyle Larson and being wrecked by Reddick while leading with 10 laps to go last weekend at Darlington.

Tournament will feature 32 drivers in a bracket style challenge. The winner will receive $1 million.

That incident allowed Keselowski to take the lead and complete one goal by winning with his team, but he’s not satisfied.

“So much has changed over the last three years from when I walked in the door, and I see just a group that keeps getting stronger,” Keselowski said Sunday. “It’s tough because I feel like there’s been a lot of two step forwards, one step back, and you keep doing those and you keep doing those.

“Everybody kind of looks at it like, we just took these two steps forward, why are we taking another step back, and it leads to the next gain. We took a pretty big step back over the off-season. It was with a lot of intentionality in a couple critical categories. We paid for that dearly to start the year and kind of lost some performance. But it was in the name of being able to do this right here: Win races honest and be competitive, and the two steps forward are just now being realized.

“It never comes as quick as you want it to. It’s a tedious, painful process that takes a deep grind at all levels, whether that’s the driver level, the organizational level, the pit crew level. But that grind is worth it when you have moments like this.”