George Diaz: Brad Keselowski a leader of the pack … on his terms

By George Diaz - Orlando Sentinel

Back when things got a little rambunctious between Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon at Texas in 2014, Keselowski framed his trackside relationships with context and contentiousness.

There was no need to offer a mea culpa or a make-nice bottle of Chardonnay. Not to Gordon. Not to Matt Kenseth, who tried to tackle him between haulers in a dustup at Charlotte. No one.

“I’m still the youngest guy who has won a championship in the last decade,” he told me in Homestead, a few days before the last race of that season. “It makes me the newest guy in the circle. I’m a threat to those who are established in the sport. I understand that. I accept that. And if they’re going to try to put a double standard on me to hold us back, I’m not going to stand for it.”

Perhaps his NASCAR colleagues are still trying to figure out what to make of Keselowski, who won the season title in 2012 and never once shied away from voicing strong opinions on just about any topic. The Michigan native thought he was perfectly in his place. Others thought he got a little uppity.

Keselowski is making noise again in 2017, and it’s not a good thing for anyone still clinging to the uppity-brat perspective.

His victory Sunday at Martinsville was his second of the season — best of any driver — and fifth Top 5 in six starts. He is now playing with house money as a lock to make the 16-driver playoffs. But as everyone knows, Keselowski knows only one speed, and it is fast-forward.

“You’re forced to live on the edge, and no matter who you are and what you do, when you live on the edge, you’re going to step over,” Keselowski said after his victory. “You’re going to fall off. And I think in a lot of ways, that’s what this sport is about.

“This sport is about living as close to the edge as you can without going too far, without falling over, and knowing that when you do that for a living that there’s going to be those moments where something happens where you go over and you have to recover from it.”

Keselowski wasn’t just talking short-term dynamics. He overcame a speeding penalty to win in Martinsville. In the bigger picture, he will have to overcome the suspension of crew chief Paul Wolfe. He served the first of a three-race suspension the previous week for the Penske team’s car failing post-race measurements March 19 at Phoenix Raceway. But Wolfe returned this past Sunday on appeal, which has yet to be heard.

Keselowski seems fine dealing with all the cross-town traffic in his racing career, and all that noise.

The same cannot be said for everyone else.


Johnson looks for speed

Mr. Seven-Time is finding that the numbers aren’t exactly adding up in the quest for No. 8.

Jimmie Johnson, he of seven Cup titles, finished an uninspiring 15th at Martinsville. That’s a tough deal for someone with much higher expectations. Johnson has won nine times at Martinsville.

But it’s also reflective of a bigger-picture problem. Johnson is 14th in the standings, with only one top-10 finish after six races.

“No, I don’t mind the questions,” Johnson said before the race, alluding to his struggles. “I mean they are rightfully asked. I think the overreaction on either side is very amusing — if we are not winning, how big of a deal some make of it, and when we win, how big of a deal some make of it.

“I think our history shows that we can rebound quickly and we have unfortunately had slow summers through our existence. … I am so fortunate my career has shifted in a way to where there are high expectations that come with it. I will gladly take that than a lot of situations that other drivers are sitting in. I don’t mind that; I just find it amusing the overreaction good and bad.”


Champion passes

A moment of respectful silence for two-time champion Sam Ard, who died Sunday morning.

Ard, 78, won 18 races during his championship seasons in 1983 and 1984, competing in the division now called the Xfinity Series. He retired from racing after suffering severe head trauma in a crash at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina in the next-to-last race of his 1984 championship season.

“For many years, Sam Ard’s persona was that of a tough-as-nails racer,” NASCAR said in a statement. “No matter the track or the competition, he battled to the end. That fighter’s mentality lasted throughout his life, and far beyond the confines of a race car.”



George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.


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By George Diaz

Orlando Sentinel