A Michigan native, a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and a man who closely follows the nuances of the sport, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski has long had the Michigan International Speedway winner’s circle on his to-do list.
Now, to do.
The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford was second fastest in opening practice Friday in preparation for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 at the Michigan two-miler (at 3 p.m. on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and while he doesn’t want to read too much into that one present and promising statistic, there are plenty of other reasons to consider him a favorite for Sunday’s race.
Not only does the track hold a sentimental place for the Rochester Hills, Michigan native, he’s been good there. Really good. He’s been runner-up twice and has 11 top-10 finishes in 20 Monster Energy Series starts – including the last three races. He was sixth in the season’s first stop at Michigan in June. He was runner-up in August last year. And in 2017, Keselowski led a race best 105 laps only to finish a gut-wrenching 17th.
“We had a great run here in the spring,” Keselowski said. “I thought we were more than capable of winning. We had a pit road issue very close to the end when we were in a position to grab the lead and take control of the race. That was really frustrating.
“I felt like we had the speed last spring to be in contention at the end. Everything has to fall your way and you have to execute as well, but that didn’t happen for us here and it hasn’t happened for us.”
But, he noted of his near chart-topping practice speed, “It looks like we are off to a good start this weekend. We have really good speed. We are one day into a three-day weekend so it is a bit early and a presumption to say anything beyond that, but it is a good start, nonetheless.”
So Keselowski and his team will take that. It’s been an interesting dynamic this year that this team hasn’t garnered the headlines despite a consistently solid, three-victory, Playoff-assured season. Only championship leader Kyle Busch, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. have won more races (four victories each) than Keselowski.
And beyond those three victories (at Atlanta, Martinsville and Kansas), Keselowski has a pair of runner-up finishes and is on a streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes coming to Michigan. Although he established his Playoff eligibility almost immediately this season winning the second race, he’d like to finish out the last four races of the regular season with a trip to Victory Lane for good measure.
As part of a particularly aggressive race at the Watkins Glen International road course last week Keselowski was asked how forceful he would be to get that next win himself – particularly at a place like Michigan that holds so much sentimental value to him.
“You really don’t know until you are in those shoes,” Keselowski said. “That question always reminds me of the story of the guy that fell down in a canyon by himself and a rock fell on his arm so he bit his own arm off to get out. So people ask you what you would do to survive if you have to and I am guessing he never would have guessed that he would do that. I don’t know what I am capable of either or what I would do.
“I hope I don’t have to bite my own arm off. With that in mind, I think without a doubt I would do more for this race than most any other.”
At 35 years old, driving for NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske, a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy already on his own mantle, Keselowski’s views are indicative of the opportunity his success has granted — to become a sounding board for the sport. He acknowledged with only four races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the pressure is palpable.
Keselowski has finished in the top-five in the championship standings four times and has been among the top-10 seven of the last nine years.
“I look at the points every two or three days,” Keselowski said. “Everybody is a little different. It is the clearest measurement of your success in the sport. It is one of the great things about NASCAR or being in this sport in general.
“You think about most careers, most lives and it is always hard to have a measuring stick. In sports, the scoreboard is up there all the time. You constantly get a reference on it. It is one of the things I appreciate about the sport so much.
“You really know if you are doing well or not. There is no ambiguity to it. I look at it a lot and I think it is interesting.”