When Brad Keselowski made his first start in the Sprint All-Star Race one year ago, much was still in limbo about the young driver’s future in NASCAR’s top series.
Running a full-time Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports and a part-time Cup slate for Hendrick Motorsports and the underfunded Phoenix Racing team, Keselowski had not yet settled on a place to race full time in 2010.
That, of course, would soon change. Keselowski signed a multiyear contract with Penske Racing in September to compete for the organization full time in the Cup and Nationwide series in 2010.
The 26-year-old has since learned that he’ll be moving over to Penske’s flagship No. 2 car with sponsorship from Miller Lite in 2011.
But that’s all still down the road a bit.
A more pressing matter at hand for Keselowski is how he'll fare in his second All-Star Race appearance, which will mark his first with Penske in the prestigious exhibition. Conventional wisdom would indicate that Keselowski is more equipped for success than in his All-Star debut with the cash-strapped Phoenix Racing outfit, which decided only two weeks earlier to field an All-Star entry for Keselowski after the youngster’s thrilling upset win at Talladega made him event eligible.
Keselowski was a non-factor in the race, finishing 17th and last among cars not involved in on-track scrum. The Michigan native understandably has much loftier goals this time for the annual winner-take-all affair.
He also feels that he learned a thing or two from his first start in the All-Star Race, a non-points paying event that tends to bring out the aggression of the most tempered drivers.
Keselowski, of course, is notorious for his hold-nothing-back approach to competition, so the unconventional All-Star format – which this year features 100 laps over four segments and a $1 million winner’s payday - seems almost tailor-made to Keselowski’s style.
“The All-Star Race has a different strategy to it, and probably those things are the biggest things you learn just from experience,” Keselowski said. “And then having the car like I know I'm going to have from Penske Racing this year gives you some confidence that you can go out there and run up front and contend for the win. All of those things feel really good.”
Despite a rough start to the season, Keselowski seems to gradually be finding his way. After four finishes outside the top 20 in the opening four races, Keselowski has picked up the pace considerably.
His No. 12 Dodge has been outside the top 16 just once over the last seven races. Meanwhile, he's enjoyed even more success on the Nationwide side, where he is the series points leader thanks to nine top-10s, including two wins, in 10 starts.
“We have been racing pretty well with the 12 (Cup) team and we have gotten a lot of consistency lately where we are running in that 15th-place range and finishing in there,” said Keselowski, who is 25th in the Cup standings entering Sunday’s race in Dover, Del. “ … Those are solid runs. We want to get better and we want to be in contention for winning and for wins, but those are coming, and right now we are making those baby steps. … So, you know, just really enjoying this time of year and everything that's going on both on and off the race track, and every weekend going to the race track is a real joy.”
With the current All-Star procedure that puts winners from both the present and previous season in the race, Keselowski’s win at Talladega last year earned him not only one but two berths in the popular event.
And he’s certainly glad it did.
“It's a fun race … because it's specifically with champions and other winners,” Keselowski said. “You know you're racing the best. There's a level of pride that comes with that, and (that) makes it fun, and there's just more attention on you, because there's less cars.
“And then obviously night racing and everything that goes with that, there's just so much pride that that race has. There's some purse things, too, naturally, but for some reason, that race is just always known for being one of the key, premier races to watch, and it becomes the same thing for us as drivers; it's one of the key, premier races to win.”