Brad Keselowski should have been happier. Much happier.
It was minutes after last weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway, but instead of celebrating, Keselowski was sweating. Profusely. And swearing ... but most importantly, not celebrating.
Keselowski came into the race at Phoenix needing a victory to guarantee he would advance to the championship race at Homestead. And then, things didn’t exactly go well. Really, they weren’t even close. Keselowski barely sniffed the top 10, and certainly didn’t look like a serious threat to win. His season appeared to be over.
Then everything that could possibly go in Keselowski’s favor did. The four other playoff drivers competing for the last championship berth all had their own issues – not finishing the race, or finishing poorly, or in Chase Elliott’s case finishing literally one spot away from advancing.
What that all meant was that Keselowski, 16th-place finish or no, was advancing to Sunday’s Cup series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Barely.
“I’m glad I don’t have to relive this day,” Keselowski said after the Phoenix race. He added on Friday that, “wasn’t the best way to enter.”
But this week, Keselowski didn’t linger on that poor result, or just backing into Homestead, or really anything except the gravity of the moment awaiting him. With a win Sunday, Keselowski would join exclusive company as the 16th driver to win multiple championships in the 69-year history of the sport.
“You’ve got to look out the front windowshield,” Keselowski said. “You look out the rear mirror and that’s where you fall behind.”
That’s exactly what Keselowski is determined not to do. His competitors already likely have an advantage on the track, seeing how Keselowski was the last of the four to qualify. But as past championships have proven – and last week at Phoenix for that matter – you can’t count anybody out, Keselowski included, until the checkered flag flies.
Not in it for the trophy
The race at Phoenix may be the latest example, but it’s far from the first time in Keselowski’s career that he’s been the beneficiary of a close finish.
Go back to nine years ago when Keselowski was just starting out in the Cup Series, still just a 25-year-old fresh face on the racing scene. In his fifth career start, and at the infamous Talladega Superspeedway to boot, Keselowski was trailing heading into the last lap. Then ... chaos. Leader Carl Edwards crashed out, opening a clear path to the front for Keselowski. He took it, earning the first of his 24 Cup series wins and becoming the first NASCAR driver ever to only lead the last lap of a race.
“I remember being confused, overwhelmed,” Keselowski said, “and happy.”
Or take his first Cup Series championship in 2012. Keselowski finished 15th in the season finale, but under the system in place then his points lead still gave him the championship trophy. Keselowski said on Thursday he still keeps it in a box, not on display over his fireplace or in his shop.
“I remember more about my first win than I do about my championship,” Keselowski said. “Too many people pulling at you. Couldn’t really enjoy it.”
A golden ticket
Now if Keselowski can win at Homestead, he’ll have another chance to enjoy a championship. He’ll have more friends, more family to celebrate with this time around, and since he’s experienced the slide back down the metaphorical mountain, maybe he can fully appreciate the summit on his second go-around.
But for Keselowski, winning a championship isn’t just about the trophy, clearly. It isn’t about the excitement either, necessarily.
It’s about the legacy that multiple-time champions breathe into reality. That second trophy might as well be a golden ticket into NASCAR’s upper echelon, or even into more exclusive company than that.
“Multiple championship drivers are Hall of Famers, and that’s a heck of a crowd to be associated with,” Keselowski said. “Early in the sport I just wanted to make a living, but now that I have the chance, I want to make the most of those opportunities.
“And I have that opportunity here.”
Keselowski isn’t the favorite on Sunday, but clearly that hasn’t held him back so far. Staring him down is a chance to join the others who have won multiple championships among others, as one of the best to ever drive.
Now all he has to do is take it.