Rusty Wallace: Brad Keselowski, Legendary No. 2 Can Win 2012 Sprint Cup Title

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2012

Can the ultimate win, a Sprint Cup championship, be within Brad Keselowski's grasp? Hall of Fame driver and ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace says it is.
Can the ultimate win, a Sprint Cup championship, be within Brad Keselowski's grasp? Hall of Fame driver and ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace says it is.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

It's made the third-most starts in NASCAR history (1,664 races), yet the iconic No. 2 has won just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship since it made its debut in the sport in 1949.

But if you ask the guy who became synonymous in the 1990s and up until 2005 with the old hot rod he christened the Blue Deuce, that second Cup championship could be just five races away.

Yes, former star driver and current ESPN race analyst Rusty Wallace, who will enter NASCAR's Hall of Fame next February, believes current Sprint Cup points leader Brad Keselowski has what it takes to not only have his name inscribed on the 2012 championship trophy for the first time, but to also finally give legendary team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title as well.

"Brad really can win it and I'll tell you why," Wallace said in an interview with Bleacher Report this week. "This has been going on now for three or four weeks or longer, where he keeps pulling the lead a little bit at a time. If he hadn't of run out of gas this past weekend, he would have pulled it out a lot further yet. I really think he can do it."

In fact, even though several drivers are still mathematically in the hunt, Wallace believes the stage is already set for the Chase to come down to just two drivers.

"I really thought that Jimmie Johnson was going to be the main challenger, and he is the only challenger left, in my opinion," Wallace said. "This has come down to just a two-car race, the 2 and the 48.

"But man, the 2 car just keeps out-thinking the 48. It's not that Brad is faster than Jimmie, but when it's all said and done, the 48 used to be the best at bringing it home and closing the deal, and now the 2 car is the best at doing that.

"More than that, I think Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski are the new Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. That crew chief and driver combo are now what Jimmie and Chad were and still are. This thing has been going on for a couple years now with Wolfe and Keselowski. I talked with Roger (Penske) and he's a real big believer in those two. He said they're just a dynamic duo. I'm not saying you're seeing a changing of the guard, I'm just saying you're seeing another dynamic duo coming on."

As proud as he is of Keselowski for continuing on the tradition that Wallace established with the No. 2, Wallace is quick to point out that the current driver of the Blue Deuce is a lot like another legendary driver from the Midwest.

"Yeah, Alan Kulwicki," Wallace said of the late Milwaukee native, who won the 1992 championship but was tragically killed less than six months later in a plane crash.

"Alan was just this methodical guy that did things different than anybody else," Wallace continued. "Keselowski has a personality that's a bit different than most people. I'm not going to call it odd, but Alan's personality was a lot like that, too, a bit different, a real calculated guy, used what was available for technology back then to his advantage, always having a piece of paper and a pencil in his hand and thinking about things.

"And he drove smart, never wrecked, was always fast on a race track, grew up in the Midwest, built his own cars and did the whole thing, so I'd say Kulwicki and Keselowski were about the same. I think Keselowski and I were kind of the same in how we care about the car, but I think Alan's persona is closer to Keselowski than most people."

While most modern-day NASCAR fans have associated the No. 2 Blue Deuce—which got that familiar nickname due to its long association with primary sponsor Miller Lite beer— with Wallace, Kurt Busch and now Keselowski, the history of that car number is really intriguing.

The No. 2 debuted in 1949 at the old Charlotte Speedway with Sam Rice behind the wheel (finished fourth in the only two times he raced it that season).

Since then, the No. 2 has earned 75 career wins (nearly half, 37, by Wallace), 424 top fives and 734 top 10s in 1,664 starts—second only to the No. 43 (1,840 starts) made famous by Richard Petty and the No. 11 (1,766 starts).

Over its 63 years of service to the world of NASCAR racing, a veritable "who's who" of greats have piloted the No. 2, even if it was for just one or a handful of races, including Junior Johnson, Richard and Lee Petty, Buddy Baker, Joe Weatherly, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Tim Richmond, Mark Martin, Morgan Shepherd, Ernie Irvan and Kurt Busch.

Oh yes, and then there's the man who earned the first of his record-tying seven career Cup championships in the No. 2 before he switched to the equally iconic No. 3 for the remainder of his titles: the late Dale Earnhardt, who won his first Cup crown in 1980 in the Rod Osterlund-owned No. 2.

That remains the only time the No. 2 has been a championship-winning car. But that's got as good of a chance of changing as it ever has next month when NASCAR reaches its season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Wallace said.

"It would be fantastic," Wallace said. "Roger deserves it. He's been trying for so long. For Roger to finally get a championship, he's due. A lot of people say you have to earn your stripes, pay your dues, you've got to do all that stuff. Roger has paid all his dues, he's done everything. Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Jack Roush have all won championships.

"By God, Roger Penske's overdue. It's his turn to do it. It would be fantastic to see that 2 car win a championship. I know that entire 2 team and Roger and (longtime Penske Racing executives) Don (Miller) and Walt (Czarnecki) and the whole entire 2 crowd and sponsors are coming to my induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Feb. 8, 2013. It would be nice to see those guys come up with the championship and then be able to visit me in the Hall of Fame as the guy that started the 2 car."

Ironically, Wallace's only Cup championship was won while driving the No. 27 in 1989 for former drag racing champ turned NASCAR owner Raymond Beadle. Two years later, Wallace rejoined forces with Roger Penske and proposed the idea of the No. 2 upon his new ride.

"When we started the team back in 1991, I went to Roger (team owner Roger Penske) and said, 'what are we going to do for a number?' I was able to get the No. 2 from D.K. Ulrich and I was pretty proud of it because Roger's old number (as a sportsman driver early in his career before he became a team owner) used to be 02. We got the No. 2 and put it on the car and it's become an iconic number."

In an era where the sport has become economically challenged and most teams require several sponsors to help pay the cost of operating a team—leading to so many different sponsors and color schemes throughout the season that fans practically need a scorecard to keep up—the No. 2 Miller Lite (Miller Genuine Draft in Wallace's early tenure) car is among the longest sponsorships in the sport for over two decades.

"It's one of the only cars out there that has consistency when it comes to a sponsor," Wallace said. "You see so many cars, they have so many different sponsors. Nowadays, you have Joe Gibbs' cars, the Roush cars, I have no idea what those cars are going to look like from week to week. But the Penske car, the No. 2 car, you always know it's going to be a blue No. 2. Because of that, that's fantastic for the race fan.

"We hate that in NASCAR, we hate that the colors keep changing, but we understand it's because of the economic times, it has to happen. But if you could have your cake and eat it too, you'd always have the black No. 3, the blue No. 2 that Rusty drove, the red No. 11 Budweiser car, stuff like that. But now, there's so many different brands on these cars. But that's what I like about the 2 car. It's a brand, everybody in the world knows the 2 car and I'm happy that myself, Roger, Don and Walt were able to start it and Brad's carrying on the tradition, and I'm proud of him for what he's doing."

Keselowski and Wallace have a lot in common. Both grew up in the Midwest (Keselowski in Michigan, Wallace in Missouri), both cut their racing teeth on short tracks around the Midwest, both came from racing families and both have a decided blue-collar upbringing.

"Yeah, I guess there really have been a lot of similarities," Wallace said. "Brad worked with his parents and he short-track raced, drove every jalopy in the world and sold cars, and I did it, too. But as far as personalities … I'm 56 now and my very first year I started was 1984 (when he was 29). Brad's what, 27 (actually 28), and he's well into his career already when I was just starting my career at that point."

While Wallace says his and Keselowski's personalities are different, their racing style is similar.

"I think we're real close to the same way when it comes to our care and passion for the car," Wallace said. "I would drive the car, but I was never a driver that went out and wrecked everybody, and he doesn't do that, either. I always brought my equipment home, and he does, too. I won an ass-load of races, and he has too, so far."

But perhaps more than anything, the biggest similarity between the former and current driver of the Blue Deuce is their great passion and respect for the sport. Keselowski may be young, but he has an old-school approach like Wallace's, both thankful for everything that has come to their lives due to racing.

"I've got a lot of passion for this sport," Wallace said. "I remember at the end of 2005, I stood up at a driver's meeting and told everybody, 'Thanks and it's been a fun ride with all of you guys, and I've looked a lot of drivers in the eyes, and I want you to remember one thing: this is a an honor and privilege to be able to drive in NASCAR.

"Nobody makes you do it, nobody makes you do the interviews. There's only a given few that can do this, and on every Sunday, you have 43 drivers and probably 20 of them can win, but there's 43 of the world's greatest drivers out there and it's a privilege to be in NASCAR. I still think that. When I see a couple drivers out there getting real cocky and being smart asses, I keep wanting to walk up to them and say, 'Remember, you don't have to do this. This is a privilege to be able to be involved in this.'"

Keselowski took over the No. 2 Blue Deuce in 2011, when Kurt Busch was switched to the No. 22 for sponsorship reasons, changing from Miller Lite to Shell Pennzoil.

Since then, Keselowski has earned eight of his nine career Cup wins in the No. 2, including five wins thus far this season, plus 22 top fives and 33 top 10s.

But when it comes to the Polish Rocket, it's not just about driving and winning. While he may seem like just a happy-go-lucky kid, Keselowski has become a real student of racing, particularly from the mechanical side, according to Wallace.

"I like his approach to NASCAR, how he really cares about his car," Wallace said of Keselowski. "Number one, if that car doesn't run fast on the race track, nothing's going to happen outside of NASCAR for you.

"He focuses really hard on the handing on the car, he spends a lot of time at the shop with the crew guys, from what I hear, he's really instrumental in all the set up notes and is really heavily involved in the mechanics of the car.

"There's a lot of guys that really don't want any part of that. They just want to drive the car, do the appearances and that's it. But Brad has realized that the car is everything in the world. If that car doesn't handle on the race track, you don't have good finishes and you don't win races, nobody's going to be talking about you.

"So now, we're doing a lot of talking about him and I really think the reason (success) has happened for him is because he's put so much effort into that car. I'm really proud of what he's done."

Wallace has seen scores of young drivers come and go in his nearly 30 years in NASCAR, and there's no question he's very high on Keselowski. A smile came to Wallace's face when he recalled an event in late August that only reaffirmed his faith in Keselowski as a driver and, perhaps more importantly, as a person.

"I was real proud of the respect that the Penske team showed me at Bristol when they painted Keselowski's car up like my car, like the car when I won one of my last wins in 2000 there at Bristol," Wallace said. "(Brad) was nice to me, was respectful to me.

"A lot of guys, when they take over for somebody, they're tired of hearing about the guy that used to be. They want their own notoriety. I kind of caught that early when he first started driving the 2 car. I just felt that attitude, that 'this is me, I'm the one driving the 2 car.' But when I saw him at Bristol, I didn't get any of that. He was real respectful and real nice."

If Keselowski indeed wins the Sprint Cup title this year, Wallace has just one hope.

"I hope he respects this car as much as I did, I hope he understands what a privilege it is to drive this car, with such an iconic owner and number, and he does."

While he tries to stay neutral on-air, there's no question Wallace is still a fan not only of the sport but also of the No. 2, which was literally his baby for 15 years.

And if Keselowski does fulfill Wallace's prediction of winning the championship, you can bet Rusty will be running from the broadcast booth to the championship trophy presentation as quickly as he can.

"Absolutely, hell yeah, man, I want to get my picture taken," Wallace said. "I want to stand right next to that damn car and say, 'Hey man, I was a part of this, too.'"


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