MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Brad Keselowski is grimacing with each rehabbing step on the treadmill. NASCAR’s rising star, though, is smiling.
“Sometimes you have to suck it up,” he says while continuing to walk — backward.
Overcoming adversity is Keselowski’s style, particularly if it comes with an iconoclastic twist.
“I probably don’t fit into any mold in this sport,” he says. “I enjoy not being predictable. I like to challenge conventional wisdom, because almost every success has come from doing the opposite of what I was told.”
The Penske Racing driver’s 2011 season has been a tale of improbability. He will enter the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, as its most unlikely and intriguing championship contender.
After an inauspicious full-season debut last year (two top-10s in 36 races), Keselowski has morphed into the hottest driver in NASCAR’s premier series. He has reeled off two victories and six top-10s in his last eight races — a streak that began days after a testing crash at the Road Atlanta course sent him to the hospital with a broken left ankle — while changing veterans’ perceptions of him as a punk.
“Just earlier this year, it seemed like he wasn’t even on the radar,” four-time champion Jeff Gordon says. “He’s a lot tougher than I thought he was.”
A decade ago, the “Young Gun” movement ushered in a host of Generation X stars —Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick among them — who have become the Cup establishment.
Keselowski, 27, seems poised as Generation Y’s answer to the next wave of upstarts. Like many born in the mid-1980s, he is a brash, computer-savvy whiz kid. He can stir up as much buzz with his Twitter account (where he has posted outspoken opinions on hot topics such as Danica Patrick’s worthiness in NASCAR, including in part: “Essentially she has opened a pandoras box for all female racers. If she doesn’t succeed, no female will get a chance for years to come.”) as he can behind the wheel of his No.2 Dodge (where he has butted heads with stars Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch).
But "Bad Brad," as he’s also known, has a grittiness that harkens back to a grease-under-fingernails era of an everyman’s hero. Whether it’s posting photos of a swollen and discolored busted ankle or winning despite the hurt, Keselowski is finding ways to capture the imagination of a fan base that can be fickle toward newcomers. "One of the great races I’ve seen was Brad holding off Kyle Busch to win Pocono with the damaged ankle," says team owner Roger Penske, a 15-time Indianapolis 500 winner who has been in racing for six decades. At that point, there’s no one who can say this guy isn’t one of the best. He’s tough, but he’s also the full package. He’s terrific with sponsors. He’s an A-plus for his age."Keselowski, the Michigan-bred son of a Camping World Truck Series winner, isn’t all about being an antiestablishment rebel, either. An American flag flaps out his car’s window after every win, and he started his victory lane speech at Pocono Raceway with a graceful remembrance of the SEALs killed that week in Afghanistan. Combine the unbridled patriotism with a baby-faced visage and a slight 5-10, 155-pound physique that is apparently impervious to pain, and NASCAR might have a different kind of rising star. And for a sport desperately trying to recapture the younger generation after its audience shrunk in recent years — TV ratings and attendance are both down more than 20% over the last five years — that could be welcome. “What he did was cool and endeared him to a lot of people because of his stamina and his determination, which is good for the sport,” says Earnhardt, who gave Keselowski his break in a Nationwide Series car four years ago. “The fans need to see that we have characters like that.” (By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY)