Revealing the Resolve of Keselowski

July 26, 2021


"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

Success in professional sports often comes down to how a team or athlete can overcome obstacles or adversity in pursuit of greatness. The ability to turn a negative into a positive can galvanize everyone on a team and raise the level of performance toward achieving a common goal.

Next week will mark the 10-year anniversary of one of those special moments of overcoming adversity that resulted in perhaps the most dramatic win ever for Team Penske’s winningest driver and a victory that ultimately helped set the table for the organization’s landmark first NASCAR Cup Series (NCS) Championship.

In 2011, Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Miller Lite Cup Series team were competing in their first season together and still very much figuring each other out. In his first full year with Team Penske in 2010, Keselowski found considerable success in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (NXS), as he won the driver’s championship with six victories and a series-record 26 top-five finishes. In his first Cup Series season with the team, however, Keselowski found the results harder to come by as he battled to find success while driving the No. 12 car for Team Penske. After the Xfinity Series title-winning effort, Roger Penske, Team Penske President Tim Cindric and the team’s partners at MillerCoors were confident that Keselowski and his NXS crew chief Paul Wolfe were ready to take the reins of the flagship No. 2 Miller Lite machine the following season. Team Penske also made the decision to go from three NCS entries to two in 2011, which resulted in personnel adjustments that brought many new faces to learn and chemistry to build among members of the new No. 2 team.

The Keselowski-Wolfe duo quickly showed why they were so successful in the Xfinity Series as the No. 2 team began the 2011 Cup Series season with improved speed. Wolfe, a former NXS competitor, knew how to get the most out of his driver with fast cars and fearless strategy. A win at Kansas Speedway in the 13th race of the 2011 season – a week after the team won the pole position for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway – vaulted the team into position to make the NASCAR Playoffs, but by the early summer months it seemed like the momentum had cooled.

        

With the Watkins Glen road course race weekend ahead on the schedule, a test was planned at Road Atlanta on August 3 to help Keselowski, a nascent road course racer in 2011, prepare for the famed circuit in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The Kansas win did a lot to reinforce that Keselowski, Wolfe and the team were on the right track, but it was more of a fuel-strategy victory. Everyone on the team was still working to find the confidence and raw speed to consistently race up front against the talented and more experienced NCS competition.

Road Atlanta – like Watkins Glen – is a high-speed road course, particularly coming off the final turn and down the front stretch and into the first corner. This is the area where during the test session, Keselowski experienced a brake issue and the No. 2 hit a concrete barrier head on at roughly 100 mph. While he was able to exit the car under his own power, the medical staff at the track called for Keselowski to be airlifted to an Atlanta-area hospital for evaluation. The diagnosis of an avulsion fracture to his left ankle and a bruised back left Keselowski in plenty of pain but also with ample determination to race the following weekend at Pocono Raceway.

The Pocono weekend would prove to be anything but easy for the driver and his emerging team. For starters, despite being a 2.5-mile triangle track, drivers shifted gears each lap at Pocono in 2011, which placed stress on Keselowski’s injured ankle during each of the 200 laps that made up the race. Then, during the Friday practice session, Keselowski spun out after suffering a cut down left-rear tire. Fortunately, he was able to keep the car off the wall and the No. 2 was not struck by any other cars on track.

After qualifying a solid 13th for the race, Keselowski raced the No. 2 inside the top 10 before Wolfe made a call to pit just prior to rain showers dousing the track which caused a two-hour delay. The unexpected break in the race turned out to be a blessing for Keselowski as he took advantage of the opportunity to ice his ankle and rest his back.

When the race resumed, all of the other lead drivers in the field made pit stops as Keselowski cycled into the race lead. From there, it was a battle between two intense rivals as Keselowski kept Kyle Busch in his rearview mirror over the final 14 laps to secure his second victory of the season.

“One of the things that helped me deal with my injuries happened earlier in the year leading into Memorial Day,” said Keselowski, recalling the inspiration behind the win. “That week, a U.S. military helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, and my cousin, who was in the Armed Forces, knew many of the people who had died. Their sacrifices really made me step back and put what had happened to me in perspective. Yes, my ankle was broken, but that was dwarfed by what those soldiers had given. I just thought, ‘Dude, suck it up. Drive the race car.’”

Underneath the surface of the crucial and courageous win was the fortitude shown by Keselowski to his fans, his competitors and, most importantly, to his team. If there were any questions about his toughness or commitment, they were answered that August afternoon in the Pocono mountains. As the injuries began to heal, Keselowski and Wolfe scored their biggest win to date just three weeks later in the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Earning a playoff spot in his first NCS season racing the Miller Lite car, Keselowski eventually finished fifth in the Cup Series standings in 2011. That season’s performance raised the bar higher for the No. 2 team as it carried that momentum into the 2012 season when Keselowski upset former NCS champ Jimmie Johnson to capture the Cup Series championship in just his third full-time season.

In the ultra-competitive world of NASCAR racing, it’s important for team members to know they are going to battle with a driver that will give everything they have to win a race. Keselowski demonstrated his complete commitment to the team with his performance in the summer of 2011 and that toughness and determination has been a calling card throughout his racing career.