NASCAR: Keselowski has come a long way since feud with Hamlin

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Associated Press
CHARLOTTEó The feud between Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin hit its breaking point two years ago at Dover, where an on-track altercation led to an off-track confrontation.
The battle raged on for the final two months of the season, and fans quickly decided if they were ěTeam Dennyî or ěTeam Brad.î Although they went tit-for-tat on the track, Hamlin continually won in the court of public opinion as he railed against Keselowskiís impatience and lack of racing etiquette.
That seems so long ago now.
Keselowski returns to Dover this weekend as a bona fide title contender. He opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with consecutive top-five finishes to vault from 11th in the standings to third. Going into Round 3 of the Chase, he trails leader Tony Stewart by 11 points.
So whatís changed?
ěThe way he drives,î Hamlin said. ěYou can ask him and tell him I said so. I think he drives 100 percent better than what he used to. He used to have the all-out speed, but he was very anxious in traffic, and heís not like that now. I think heís matured 100 percent, and heís showing his talent now.î
Hamlin always thought Keselowski was talented. Everybody did, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave Keselowski the flagship No. 88 at JR Motorsports midway through the 2007 season. The next year, his first full season in NASCAR, Keselowski won two races and finished third in the Nationwide Series standings.
Then came 2009, a breakout of sorts of Keselowski.
Contact with Carl Edwards on the final lap at Talladega nearly sent Edwardsí car into the grandstands, and Keselowski sailed by for a stunning first Sprint Cup Series win. He racked up four Nationwide wins driving for Earnhardt, and had a development deal with Hendrick Motorsports.
But thereís never any open seats with NASCARís top Cup team, and Keselowski wanted to get to the top level. Unsure of what his future held, and anxious to get to Cup, Keselowski developed an aggressive and unapologetic reputation that rubbed some veteran drivers the wrong way.
ěI think he was showing his talent in a different way in 2009, in a defiant way in that he had to go prove he was good,î Hamlin said. ěI think people got over that, and he realized he didnít need to do that to be successful. Now I think … heís more relaxed, even though heís probably more confident in himself than ever.î
But it wasnít easy for Keselowski.
Penske Racing offered him a Sprint Cup ride, and Keselowski had a decision to make. Sit around waiting for the day something might open at Hendrick, or move to a high-end organization that, despite its resources, has never won a title at NASCARís top level.
He jumped at the challenge, and all parties involved have been better off since.
Keselowski got Penske to put more emphasis on the Nationwide program and rewarded the organization with six victories and last yearís championship. That softened the blow of how badly he struggled at the Cup level ó just two top-10 finishes all year and a 25th-place finish in the final points standings.
He asked at the end of the year for Nationwide crew chief Paul Wolfe to be moved up to his Cup team, and Penske obliged. It took until May for the No. 2 team to see any results, but once they turned the corner, itís been a mad dash to the front.
Strangely, Keselowskiís turnaround really heated up after he broke his ankle testing his Dodge in August. He won at Pocono four days after the accident, and followed it with a second-place finish at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan and then a win at Bristol. Heís had just one finish outside the top-10 since the accident ó a 12th at Richmond. His climb from 25th in the standings after Charlotte has been nothing short of remarkable.
ěHeís just a racer, and his crew chief seems like heís a racer and they do their own thing and they donít get caught up in a lot of the tricks of the week of whatís around them in the garage,î said Kevin Harvick. ěThey stick to what works for them, and it is working for them. It will be interesting to see how it plays out eight weeks from now.î
The trick now is to see if Keselowski can maintain his pace over the final eight weeks of the season. Some have noted that Keselowskiís climb in Cup was linked to him skipping Nationwide races as he nursed his ankle. Keselowski, who won two weeks ago at Chicago in Nationwide, says no way.
ěI donít think itís fair,î he said. ěSometimes you have look at it in a bigger picture. I donít see where the two are connected. I see the bigger picture, which is why I came into the Nationwide Series with Penske to begin with ó the bigger picture of training people and giving opportunities to superstars in our sport … the next tire changer, the next great mechanic or crew chief, whatever position that might be. I want to be a part of that training process.
ěMaybe itís as simple as putting a part on the Nationwide car that weíve been running on the Cup car and it breaks and we take it off before the Chase starts. There is just so may ways where it helps.î
The next eight weeks will show what Keselowskiís got. Then again, heís shown plenty over the last two years.
The Associated Press
09/28/11 12:51