For this fan, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be forever linked. After all, it was Earnhardt who gave Keselowski his big break in the Nationwide Series. He had his rough edges, but that ride led a short-term Cup opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports, a win at Talladega for James Finch, and then that championship ride for Roger Penske. Both have racing in their blood as sons of racers, both are a little rough around the edges; occasionally saying things that make suits squirm. Both have experienced some of racing’s highest highs and lowest lows. Now, both are riding high on the comeback trail and are at the front of the pack in the 2014 title hunt.
In Earnhardt’s case, it’s been a long, gradual road. Sure, he’s had successes over the last couple of years, but for the first time in a decade, Junebug looks like a real contender. In keeping with his gradual road to relevance, Earnhardt has been a picture of consistency. He’s tied for the most top fives (9) with none other than…..Keselowski. Only Jeff Gordon has as many top tens as Junior (13). You know the man is on the right track when he is “disgusted” with a 10th place run, and this notorious road course hater finishes third at Sonoma.
There were more than a few that wrote Keselowski off as a one year wonder; plummeting from a 2012 championship, to one lone victory and no Chase bid last season. Bad Brad is the man of the moment with two wins in his last three races, as Keselowski and Joey Logano lead the charge for Roger Penske’s resurgence as Ford’s flagship team.
This is good for NASCAR. To all those fans who say that today’s driver is nothing more than a corporate shill, I point you to these two. Keselowski possesses a certain dorky exuberance that makes you think of that boy with the drawl in the Sprint commercials. He has no filter. Earnhardt may save his most colorful remarks for the team radio, but when one thinks of the NASCAR racing stereotype, Dale too easily fits the mold. He may be a rich redneck, but he’s still a redneck.
Their chances are as good as anyone’s. Jimmie Johnson is still Jimmie Johnson, but he is far from dominant with two consecutive 42nd place finishes as evidence. You get one of those in this year’s Chase format, and you’re toast. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano both have moments of excellence, but both have tallied a greater number of rough races than the subjects of today’s piece.
Just four short years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared to have washed out. Last season, it seemed as though Keselowski might become a cautionary tale as one who had experienced too much success too early. Now, here they are both running with the Johnsons and Gordons of NASCAR, with no sign of letting go.