DAYTONA BEACH, Fla._ Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton may have raised the trophies in Victory Lane Thursday at the Daytona International Speedway, but it was Brian Keselowski who felt like a champion at the end of the day. Starting his own team with little financial support, Keselowski was able to use a push from his younger brother Brad to race his way into Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“We struggled just to even really get here,” Keselowski said. “Still putting together the car at the racetrack. Man, we just did not run good at all all weekend. It still goes to show you that you got a chance no matter what.”
Few, if any, gave the underfunded team a shot at making the race during Thursday’s 150-mile Gatorade Duel, let alone racing for the lead and finishing fifth. Yet, thanks to circumstances the Keselowski brothers found each other working together at the back of the pack and in a matter of laps were charging to the front.
On Lap 41 of the 60-lap event, Brad Keselowski was bumped from behind by Todd Bodine and sent sliding down the banking in Turn 3. Able to avoid contact with the wall or another car, the Penske Racing driver was able to put four fresh tires on his No. 2 Miler Lite Dodge and head back out. Restarting at the back of the pack, he hooked up with Brian and the pair never separated.
“I said, ‘Heck, I’ve got a great guy to work with back here after the spin and at least I know that he’s not going to dump me,’” said younger brother Brad. “The next thing you know we’re running fourth, fifth and then second. I put the pedal to the floor and kept on pushing. I restarted on that last restart ninth or 10th, drove up there to sixth or seventh and just kind of stalled out. It’s a great feeling.”
Following the race, tears of joys streamed from the 29-year-old’s face as reality sank in and the family celebrated their accomplishment.
“I don't know if anybody else would have stuck with me that long,” said Brian. “It gives everybody a shot at it and says that the independent guy that can go out and find a racecar, put it together, get a good push, everybody's got a chance at that. I hope that it proves that everybody got just as good a shot as I do.”
Keselowski’s road to the Daytona 500 has not been an easy one by any means. Running his own Nationwide Series program in 2010, he faced numerous hurtles including failing to qualify for five races, suffering three wrecks and finishing just nine of 26 attempts.
Purchasing a package deal of cars from former owner Ray Evernham two years ago, saying they were probably one of the first eight cars Evernham built, Keselowski originally planned to convert the old Sprint Cup cars into the new Nationwide body style, but never had the funding. So, for less money he was able to put a new nose on the cars and convert them to run in the Cup Series under the current rules.
Attempting his first Sprint Cup race last fall in Bristol, Keselowski failed to make the race, but refused to give up his dream. Working hard throughout the winter, mostly on his own, the family run organization set their sights on Daytona and hoped for the best.
“As of a week ago, it was just two of us working on the cars,” he said. “I had a couple guys working through the winter, but I just honestly couldn't afford to pay them anymore. They had to move on and do other things.
“It's just been me and my dad. I called my uncle in the middle of last week and said, I really need the help. He said, I'm coming down.”
Things are not easy for the older brother of last year’s Nationwide Series champion by any means. There are no hot-shot uniforms, there aren’t swarms of crew members working with top of the line tools and equipment, there is Brian, his father Bob, his uncle and a few friends.
The hard work has now paid off and the garage area has noticed.
“All the guys in the garage know what Brian has to work with,” said Dave Blaney. “It's not much. To come down here and make this race, I don't care how you make it, to make this race is awesome. It's something you'll never forget.”
“I get really frustrated and perturbed and upset when I hear people say our sport doesn't have personality, there's no personalities in our sport,” Duel winner Jeff Burton said. “They don't know what the hell they're talking about. Things like that are what our sport's about. Our sport's about passion, it's about desire, it's about staying up till 4:00 in the morning worrying about what's going to happen. It's about having dirt underneath your fingernails working.
“That's what our sport is about. If you look at the drivers, the car owners, the crew chiefs, the guys changing tires, there's people that had a dream and busted their ass to make it happen,” he added. “It's for every sport, for every business. But it's what separates and makes our sport special, is it takes heart, it takes desire, and it's passion.”
Fellow independent racer Joe Nemechek had another piece of advice for Keselowski,“You have a big payday coming, Brian. You need to hire some help.”
“I mean, it means I can pay my bills off finally,” Keselowski said. “It's been a really rough winter, I'm telling you. It means I get to go to Phoenix next week. Honestly, that's two of the best things I could ever need right now.
“I'm really, really, really glad that that happened. I can look everybody in the eye again and say, ‘Thank God this worked.’ I told everybody this is going to work, just hold on, please help, and they did. So thank the Lord.”
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