Being a defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has its perks and rewards, like everlasting fame, glory, and the permanent taste of success that is a part of that organization, from the driver to the personnel back at the shop. Archived footage via videos, photographs, sound clips, and memorabilia serve as the time capsule for a champion's hard earned accomplishment.
Of course, there's the ebbs and ties with it as well, but for Brad Keselowski, life's been good as the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion. Sitting seventh in points after 11 races, it's been a trying season but he finds himself within striking distance of the series lead as well as Victory Lane. Still, as the defending champion, it means that for a season, the focus is on everyone with the No. 2 team to duplicate their success from '12.
Adjusting to the new Gen-6 cars, a different manufacturer, as well as some races without crew chief Paul Wolfe, it is a time in which we truly see the true champion in Keselowski as a driver and as a leader. At age 29, he's certainly emerging as a veteran and mature driver, now serving as a sort of mentor to teammate Joey Logano, as well as a catalyst for positive energy for his "Blue Deuce" crew. No matter the situation, it seems like Keselowski can will that No. 2 car into position for a solid finish or for a win.
That's the hopes for the pride of Rochester Hills, MI heading into Charlotte "Speedweeks," as he looks to capitalize and sweep the Cup races at the famed 1.5-mile speedway. Finishing second in the Sprint All-Star Race and fifth in the grueling Coca-Cola 600, Keselowski aims to have "all-star" results in the form of two victories when both Charlotte races are in the books.
His track record at CMS is solid, with an average finish of 11th in his four previous All-Star attempts, while his overall points-paying race average result is 15.7. Last year's fall race was virtually a lock for Keselowski before running out of fuel en route to a heartbreaking 11th-place finish. To say the least, the winner's circle is awaiting for one of NASCAR's most dynamic and exciting personalities.
This weekend's focus for all the Cup teams will be on winning the spring showdown at Concord, NC, which is the equivalent to an all-star clash meeting the homecoming football game for a local high school team. It's two weeks where the grind of those long road trips finally dissipate into a colossal "Super Bowl" atmosphere in the teams' home turf.
About everyone calls CMS' radius "their home," and there's nothing sweeter for these teams than to win at their own backyard in front of family and friends in the stands and along pit road. Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer got to hoist their respective trophies in last year's trio of CMS races, all denying Keselowski from that elusive prize.
Keselowski has sampled what it's like to win at Charlotte on two occasions in the Nationwide Series, taking top honors in the spring 2010 and '12 races. On the Cup side, he's been much like the Buffalo Bills during the 1990's - close but no cigar. However, it's not for lack of effort, as all the pieces to win at any track on any given day is around at Penske Racing.
Wins would certainly help ease with the loss of Wolfe, who won't be back with the team until the Dover race on June 2nd due to pre-race inspection violations from the Texas spring race. Despite that dark cloud from the penalty and the dragged out process that came from it within the past few weeks, this team has never made it an excuse and their driver has still driven the wheels off that car.
That's the kind of driving needed to win the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the usual patience found in the long Cup spectacles are put to the side with a Saturday night showdown similar to a local short track stock car special. Risky chances are taken, cars are put to their extreme limits, and the drivers wheel their cars as if it's a qualifying lap with about 20 cars around them.
What kind of race does that sound like? One where Keselowski can absolutely win and when he does, it could be the kind of catalyzing force that sets off the consistency that propelled them to a title run last year. It's been done before and as long as that No. 2 team continues to believe in themselves, that confidence along with their talent and amazing equipment could result in a summer where about nothing can stop them.