Folks, I don’t think there’s any of us that don’t have a lot of things that we’ve done that we never forget -- and most of them are things that we did the very first time.
How many of us can remember our first kiss, our first girlfriend? How many of us can remember that first car or first job? There are so many things that happen in your life and the first time they happen, they are unforgettable.
I think from a driver’s perspective, you never forget your first win. I’ll never forget winning the Nashville 420 in 1975 on Mother’s Day weekend. What a special day for me. And the drivers always can tell you the very first race they’ve ever won.
I’m sure Brad Keselowski will never forget his very first win because of what a traumatic affair that was, sending Carl Edwards flying into the catch fence. I’m sure he’ll never forget that ... and I know Carl won’t.
So there’s so many things that we accomplish in our lives, but the things that we remember the most were the first time that we ever did them. Any time you win a championship, your first championship is something that kind of overrides everything else that you’ve ever done. A championship is not just a weekend achievement; it’s a year-long affair. Throughout a season there are a lot of winners, but at the end of the year, there’s only one champion.
That’s what makes a championship so special.
You compete for 36 weekends, 10 of them in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, to decide the champion. It’s a grueling schedule and it has a huge reward at the end of the rainbow if you can pull it off. Certainly this year we saw a driver who has really, really matured into something special and that’s Brad Keselowski.
When you think about it, when Brad started, he was called Bad Brad. And he was. He and Carl Edwards had some incredible run-ins. I’ll never forget at one of the Nationwide races, Brad's dad Bob said he’d have to put on a uniform and go out there and settle things himself between Brad and Carl if Carl kept on picking on his kid.
So that’s kind of who Brad was when he started. A little rough around the edges, but it wasn’t long until we all could see he had a lot of talent and he had a lot of desire and he had a lot of passion.
I loved what he said last weekend. He got some inspiration from Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis when he said that he wasn’t fast enough, big enough, smart enough – all the things that he needed to be successful he didn’t possess – and that was motivation for him. Brad got a lot of inspiration from that and living it out himself.
I love what Brad’s mom said, that there were no golden spoons in the Keselowski household. You think about Brad and his family, they went bankrupt trying to field cars and trucks for Brad to race and Brad took that really, really to heart. He took that hard. He felt like he had bankrupted his family. So he had a lot of motivation to be successful at what he was doing.
You always hear coaches say give me a player with heart and I’ll take that over talent, give me a player with desire, I’ll take that over talent any day. It’s what Brad possesses. He possesses those intangibles that you can’t teach, they have to be inherent, and he has them.
It’s been incredible to watch Brad and crew chief Paul Wolfe and the magic that they’ve been able to pull off to win their first championship. Brad said something funny when he was asked what was he going to buy. All total, he’s probably going to win somewhere around $10 million -- $5.6 is for the championship alone -- and somebody asked him what he was going to buy and he said he was going to buy a tank. That’s good because that’s the kind of kid he is. He’s 28 years old, he likes to have fun, his neighbor is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He wants him and Dale Jr. to get out and race tanks through the woods. It’s not very appealing to me, but it sounds like something a couple of young kids like to do.
I think what he really ought to do is buy a Brinks truck because after this year and the way things are going and the way things are looking, he’s going to win some more championships. He’s going to win a lot more races and he’s going to make a lot more money.
He’s might not only be able to buy a tank, he might be able to have a whole army by the time it’s over with.
I like the way the kid operates. He shoots from the hip and he’s old-school. Don’t ask him a question unless you want an honest answer, and I like that. He’s brash, he’s outspoken, he’s confident, he’s cocky. But that’s what makes him good, that’s what makes him who he is. The thing I like about it is he doesn’t hide it. He doesn’t hide behind anything. What you see is what you get. He did that interview after the Phoenix race and he let everyone know right away that he was not a happy camper about things that had been said about the way he raced at Texas the previous week.
Yeah, he used bad language. That’s something that you can kind of get away with when you’re 28 years old and you’re not the champion, but you might have to cut that back a little once you become the spokesman for the sport.
That doesn’t mean they are going to change Brad Keselowski -- nobody’s going to change him. But you do become more aware of the fact that you’re the spokesperson for the sport so some of the things, maybe that outspoken, brash, in-your-face attitude, you might have to curtail that just a little bit.
But trust me, with Brad Keselowski, NASCAR is not going to change who he is. He’s always going to be in your face. And now he can be in your face with a lot of credibility.
People listened to him before. More people are going to listen to him now.
He had a great year. He won five races. It appears to me that Paul Wolfe and he are the next Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson type of combination. Paul is an incredible talent and Brad is an incredible talent and they complement each other very well. They believe in each other.
Roger Penske, whom I have the utmost respect for and always have, announced way back in March that at the end of the year his team would be leaving Dodge and going to Ford. I’m sure Roger, Brad, Paul and the people at Dodge had no idea what this year was going to be like when that announcement was made.
Roger has funded that Dodge program and developed a lot of the stuff for those cars himself, so he had a large investment there. He felt like for the future of his team and for all the things they wanted to accomplish, they needed to be with a manufacturer where they had teammates and other resources that would strengthen his team so he decided to make the change.
Roger Penske is a smart man. He’s one of the best businessmen in the world. I’ve known him since 1972 and I was there when he won his first race in 1973. I’ll bet he hasn’t forgotten that either. I’ll bet that was one of those firsts that he’ll never forget. The man has 15 Indianapolis 500 trophies and he had done everything in the business world and the racing world except win the Sprint Cup trophy.
Now, I know he has a special place in his trophy case for that Sprint Cup trophy. It means more than anything I think he’s ever done to be able to put his name on the trophy that Rick Hendrick, one of his biggest heroes and somebody he really admires and respects, knows all about. Roger now has joined his heroes and has one of those Sprint Cup trophies. That’s a huge accomplishment for him and his organization.
That’s all Brad. I talked to Roger Penske in 2008 and he’d just won the Daytona 500 with Ryan Newman. Shortly after that I asked Roger, I said, “Roger what’s the problem. You have all this success in every kind of racing that you’re involved in, still you always seem to struggle in Cup. Why is that?” He looked at me and said, “DW, it’s just simple. I just haven’t been able to put the right people together.”
Brad Keselowski sat down with Roger and told him the same thing. He told him you’ve got more resources here and you’ve got more opportunity here than anybody in this whole sport and I want to help you get it organized and turn it into a championship-winning team. Brad was able to sell Roger on that idea and he hired him and then Brad convinced him to hire Paul Wolfe and the rest is history.
I think Roger would tell you right away that it’s Brad and his commitment and his excitement and his vision that led to this.
That was something else Roger said about Brad and it tells you a lot about the kid. Roger said that Brad’s windshield was bigger than any other driver’s out there, meaning that Brad could see things that no one else could see. He demonstrated that all through the Chase. Missed more wrecks, went through the wrecks, around the wrecks – wrecks all around him and he was able to bob and weave and make his way through there. That was part of his success in the Chase. So when Roger said his windshield was bigger than everybody else’s, his vision was bigger than everybody else’s, Roger bought into that and now they are Sprint Cup champions.
It’s been fun to watch. I like this kid. I’ll tell you when I really became a fan. When he broke his ankle at Road Atlanta testing and that weekend came to Pocono with his foot swollen up bigger than some driver’s heads and was able to win that race. That told me about the commitment that kid had and what kind of champion he was going to be. He’s a great champion.
Yes, he’s going to rattle some cages, he’s going to get some people riled up and upset every now and then. But, by golly, we need that. We haven’t had that for a while. I don’t think there’s anything real politically correct about Brad Keselowski, but I tell you one thing, he’s a racer’s racer.
He’s a blue-collar racer. He grew up in racing, he can build cars, he can build engines, he was in the shop every day. He’s the perfect throwback to the way we used to do it. Kind of old school. What I love about him is he can take old school and marry that into social media and really, really make himself a voice for the sport, a popular figure and a guy that will really make a difference. I think he’s going to be a champion that can make a difference. I think he may be the first champion that we’ve had in a while since maybe Jeff Gordon that can bring us a lot of new fans and we need that.
I can talk about him and Roger Penske all day long, but it’s kind of like that old song when Roger Miller says, “Chug-a-lug, Chug-a-lug.” Well, Brad, “Chug-a-lug” – and welcome to the club.
As to Gordon, I want to congratulate him for the turnaround week it was. In trouble, fined and just absolutely a disaster at Phoenix, he turned around and came back the next week. It really kind of shows the mark of a champion, the resolve of a champion.
You don’t let the bad times get you down, you just keep looking ahead and Jeff did that and he won the race.
And how ironic that Clint Bowyer ran second and finished second in the points. What an incredible year Clint had, and what a great accomplishment that was for my brother Michael Waltrip and his team.
So congratulations to Jeff, his year started off upside down at Daytona and it stayed that way right up to the very end. So he started the year off upside down and he ended it right-side up and he ended it in Victory Circle. Just shows the mark of a champion and Jeff Gordon is a champion.
And to the other champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- his spotter Mike Calinoff and I were both screaming at Stenhouse at the same time and I know Stenhouse said he turned his radio off or didn’t pay any attention to him, but I thought that was awfully bold and brave and borderline not very smart of him to keep racing hard to the finish of the season finale with the championship on the line.
But he pulled it off so congratulations to him, he’ll do a great job in the No. 17.
Matt Kenseth and I and David Pearson, we’ll pass the torch on to him and let him carry the banner for the 17, I’m sure he’ll do a great job.
And then there's new Truck champion James Buescher. Great job to lead Turner Motorsports to win their first Truck title, that was a great accomplishment by that young man.
The future is bright. Two great stars, Buescher and Stenhouse, and there’s a lot of kids out there – I’ve said it over and over again, I think it’s time for a changing of the guard and the guard better be ready because the change is standing at the door.