Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 1 of 12)
When Brad Keselowski looks back at his 2010 racing season, he'll most likely look at it in two ways: amazing and disappointing.
First, the amazing part: Keselowski's Nationwide Series campaign was a memorable experience, with a title winning year that saw six victories at venues like Talladega, Richmond, Nashville, Michigan, Charlotte, and the final NASCAR race at Gateway International Raceway.
A steady, aggressive driver, the 26-year-old second generation talent obviously proved his stock car worth behind the wheel of the No. 22 Discount Tires Dodge. However, there's that inconsistent freshman run in the Sprint Cup Series.
Ineligible to run for the Raybestos Rookie honors (he ran over the "trial race limit" of seven events prior to a full fledged season), it's safe to say that he'll probably not look back at his year fondly. That's not to say there weren't a few highlights sprinkled in a season that was otherwise pedestrian, especially for a racer with the talent of Keselowski's caliber.
For instance, he nabbed the pole at Loudon, NH in September and pocketed consecutive top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Talladega, two equally challenging tracks that are extreme in length and banking.
Unfortunately, those were about the only notable moments for "BK," unless his spectacular flip at Atlanta in March counts as such, but that'll be discussed a bit further in this piece.
To say the least, a few drivers felt they owed Keselowski some payback "hits" after a controversial 2009 season in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
Much like his contemporaries in Kurt and Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, as well as his team's legendary predecessor in Rusty Wallace, the Wolverine State native sometimes falls prone to his aggressiveness, which lands him in trouble alone or with his peers on the track. The end result is often ugly, with some bruised egos, bent sheet metal, and baggage that carries for as long as a year.
Just ask Carl Edwards, who exacted revenge at Atlanta for some of the hard racing that the pair engaged in recent years (and perhaps for the rest of the Sprint Cup circuit). Call it a deserved hit or a cheap shot, perhaps that crash greatly affected Keselowski's mindset, whether he'd admit it or not.
It was a learning year for the pride of Rochester Hills, MI, but nevertheless, that's usually how the rookie experience is for any talented athlete. While a bit of a stretch, quarterback Tom Brady displayed his raw talent sufficiently to be drafted by the New England Patriots, albeit as a sixth round pick and overall, the 199th choice of the 2000 NFL Draft.
Coaches watched the young hurler (who also had ties with the state of Michigan via the University of Michigan QB, 1996-'00) in training camp and notably, the Patriots' late QB coach Dick Rehbein noted Brady's flaws in essentially being too slow reading defenses and taking the initiative in the pocket.
A year later, the franchise's prominent star thrower, Drew Bledsoe, fell victim to a hard tackle and hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis during a Week 2 contest in Foxboro, MA.
Getting the call to replace Bledsoe for the remainder of the game was the University of Michigan gunslinger whose game and form improved during that year's preseason - Tom Brady. As the saying goes, "the rest is history."
Brady's career would flourish as a result of that Super Bowl winning season during the 2001-'02 NFL campaign, greatly rising from a nobody to an international sports icon.
Perhaps Keselowski's racing mindset will get a few "off-season" adjustments, from the simplest of aspects like being patient to a technical component to his approach, which includes how he communicates with his crew regarding his machine's handling and characteristics.
Keselowski essentially gets a major boost in 2011, taking the keys and control of the famous No. 2 blue deuce, otherwise known as the Miller Lite Dodge Charger R/T. Paired with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who helped Penske's young ace win the 2010 Nationwide Series title, there will be few doubts as to how the pair will mesh and gel as a cohesive unit.
Additionally, Keselowski and the rest of the Mopar gang will drive new Charger machines with a nosejob - yes, not only do these hard bodied tanks get their braces "removed," but the front flare of their cars will have a more familiar, traditional look that will bare greater resemblance to its sisters which roam the streets of America.
All the tools and pieces are there for BK to have a solid sophomore season (try saying that three times fast), so long as he realizes to harness that aggression along with his race savvy skills when it comes to making the most out of his races.
Also, if he needs some advice along the way, he has great mentors such as team owner Roger Penske, who knows a thing or two about raising young talent into series titlists, as well as Kurt Busch, who didn't exactly have the smoothest of introductions in the Sprint Cup ranks.
If Keselowski can relay what his car is doing during the races effectively enough where crew chief Paul Wolfe and the No. 2 crew understand what he's feeling, it'll be a season to remember in 2011.
At best, "this guy" (a nod to Jon Gruden and Twitter friend @fangsbites) has a great shot at the Chase - but any meltdown on the track will translate into yet another mediocre season.
There's two reasons to believe that BK will make the Chase and that's how he's maturing as a racer and that the best has yet to come from the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series champ, who'll prove his detractors and peers that he belongs in the most elite level of stock car racing.