Brad Keselowski, a driver on the rise, needs only a short backward glance to figure out what got him here.
Valuable experience racing against the best of the Nationwide Series – and, not incidentally, the invading Sprint Cup drivers – gave him the sort of foundation, Keselowski said, that leads to days like last Sunday at Bristol, where he led 232 laps on the way to a solid victory in the Food City 500.
The win boosted Keselowski eight positions in points to 13th entering Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.
“I was very fortunate, and I know I was very fortunate, when I got the ride to drive for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series,” Keselowski said. “I spent two seasons in that series as a partial Cup competitor and full time Nationwide competitor.
“During that time span, I was very fortunate to race with some of the best. I don't think we've seen a system that's existed like that in decades past. … I go back to my first Nationwide start for Dale. It was in Chicago, I believe. To this day I think that race still has the record for the most amount of Cup drivers, 25 or 26, I can't remember what it was. But that's what I had to do to build my career. I mean, I had to go against the Cup drivers when I was still trying to figure out how to run Nationwide.
“I guess what I'm trying to say, it obviously frustrates me a little bit when I take some heat, any Cup driver takes some heat from the press, media, fans, whatever, about running the Nationwide Series, because it's really a character builder. If you can run well over there, you can come here and get the job done.”
And Keselowski has done that. He won three races last season and made a run at the Sprint Cup championship, a sort of harvest from those Nationwide seasons.
“That series helped me build a lot of character,” he said. “It helped me learn in a smaller spotlight. I feel like when I got over here that the learning process was a lot quicker. It just came down to getting with the right team. … That took a little bit of time, for sure.
“But I think now that we have it, I have the experience base to run competitively on almost every style of race track. I was able to learn that – I don't want to say in obscurity – but in a time and place where it was acceptable to make mistakes, which is what the Nationwide side was for me.
“What I'm trying to say is that the training and the lower level series of NASCAR, the way they're structured right now, certainly helped me when I got to this level to be perhaps more prepared than many drivers in the past.”
He and his team were so prepared prior to Sunday’s race that Keselowski didn’t hesitate to label his car the best he’d ever had in Sprint Cup.
“I just say what I think is real,” he said. “If I think it's the best car I ever had, I'll tell them. If I think I have a s--- box, I'll tell Paul (crew chief Paul Wolfe), ‘You got to fix this.’ Some people appreciate that and respect it. Other people make a big deal and say, ‘You're being negative, you're being cocky.’ How about just being truthful?
“I don't understand why when you tell people it's good or bad, you're either being cocky or negative. How about you're just saying what you really think? Whatever happened to that being cool?”
By the end of the season, Keselowski could be very cool, indeed.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.