By Cole Cusumano
Much has changed since Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed Brad Keselowski to JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (now Xfinity Series) in 2007. The 15-time Most Popular Driver became a first-ballot Hall of Famer, as his protege is now a NASCAR Cup Series Champion, who picked up his 35th career victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski is now following in his former team owner’s footsteps in a historic way.
The driver of the No. 2 picked up his sixth victory in Talladega, tying Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon for second on the all-time wins list at the 2.66-mile track. Impressively, Keselowski achieved this milestone in his 25th start at the superspeedway, while it took the other three Hall of Famers at least 30 attempts.
There’s a sense of poetry surrounding Keselowski’s career after earning this monumental feat and tying the driver who gave him legitimate opportunity in NASCAR. Things have now come full circle for the 2012 Champion.
“The word ‘surreal’ comes to mind,” Keselowski told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I never thought I’d even have that chance. It’s hard. It’s a hard sport. Any success you have means the world. So I think to have my name on any list that has Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega, that’s a pretty big deal.
“I’m super happy and super proud to be there with them.”
The superspeedway with a visceral reputation has been gracious to Keselowski. Although riddled in scorn and controversy, it was the sight of his first victory in the Cup Series. In the years that followed, he developed a villainous persona, an ironic parallel to Talladega itself.
After 12 years of unnecessary bad blood reception from fans and his peers, it appears acceptance of greatness is setting in towards Keselowski, in one of the most damning character arcs in NASCAR history.
“I grew up loving the sport, still love the sport,” Keselowski said. “We fight sometimes, like husband and wife, but I still love [NASCAR]. I love the challenge every day of getting up, trying to find excellence, reinventing yourself as the rules change, people change around you.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, the reality is Keselowski has been a master-class ambassador for NASCAR and essential to its growth. The stats speak for themselves and they should only get bolstered as the 37-year-old continuously proves to be an annual Championship contender, while extending his yearly win streak to 11 consecutive.
With much more left to prove, Keselowski’s next step would be breaking the three-way tie he inserted himself into for second on the all-time wins list at Talladega. As for first, he’ll have some work to do before topping Earnhardt’s 10.
“I would pause and say Dale’s record is so far out there, yeah, I have a shot at it, but it’s a distant shot,” Keselowski said. “I think you got to get seven before you can even think about 10.
“Still pretty cool to be on the same list with him on anything, that’s for sure, even if it’s second.”
Earnhardt. Gordon. Keselowski. The driver of the No. 2 is cemented in history among names as legendary as Talladega itself. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the Cup Champion beginning to receiving the widespread admiration he deserves, and it should only increase as time forges forward.