Same Old Problem, Different Face: The Brad Keselowski Dilemma in NASCAR
Aggressive racers aren't exactly a new breed of drivers in motorsports, as they often bring excitement, controversy, and attention to the sport.
They're the breed of men and women who leave it all on the line, willing to do what it takes to win, and often leave the track with discontent after defeat.
Some of the best in NASCAR were the hard chargers, including the late Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, and recently Kurt and Kyle Busch.
Each possessed some kind of talent to race to the front, even if it meant banging some sheet metal and bruising some egos along the way.
In a sport that's said to have some vanilla personalities, there are the few who aren't afraid to truly be themselves. They let it show with the press, fans, and their peers on the track.
That's the case with 26-year-old Brad Keselowski, the talented and remarkable second-generation racer, whose father Bob and uncle Ron were quite the respectable stock car racers from the Midwest. Racing has been in their blood for a long time, often as winners in their leagues.
The young Keselowski has shown some remarkable poise and skill that says winner all over him. He has driven for one of the most respectable organizations in all of auto racing.
With solid backing from team owner Roger Penske, "BK" has all the tools around him to become a regular for victories and perhaps some championships down the road.
Unfortunately, he's not exactly a liked figure among his peers—particularly some racers who've become embroiled in some controversy with the driver of the No. 12 Dodge.
From Denny Hamlin to Carl Edwards, some of that aggressive driving has landed him in some hot water with the sport's veterans, who feel they're victims of sheet metal bumper tag rather than some hard racing.
That said, Keselowski's style is no different than any aggressive racer who's gotten into someone in a variety of ways. The incidents range from slight contact that results in nothing more than a tire mark on the car's side to heavy contact, often ending with mangled sheet metal and tempers flaring hotter than an Arizona heat wave.
Earnhardt made it his brand of racing, often bumping competitors at will, as a means to win races. How else do you suppose he got the nicknames "Ironhead" and "The Intimidator?" Chances are, almost any race that the Big E was a part of had him mixing it up out there, rattling cages along the way.
Ernie Irvan has perhaps the strongest resemblance of the past to Keselowski. He was a young Californian who worked laboriously building grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the late 1980s. Irvan was the pride of Salinas who earned the moniker "Swervin' Irvan" for his "go at 'em" style, banging fenders and crumpling up his Kodak Chevy when he marched to the lead.
Some of those tactics landed him in a world of hurt in 1991-'92, where good intentions often led to Irvan into trouble with his peers. Most notably in the '91 season, he wiped out a number of contenders in the July Pocono race. This lead to numerous racers venting frustration in a pre-race report during CBS Sports' coverage of the DieHard 500 the following week.
"I told Ernie like I told Earnhardt the other day, I'm going to race you like you race me. If you hit me, I'ma crash you," Rusty Wallace said with some disgust.
Humiliated and humbled by the words of his fellow racers, Irvan stepped up to the podium during the drivers' meeting at Talladega, asking for a second chance to prove himself as a legit, hard-racing but clean racer.
Following that incident, Irvan honed himself into one of the finest stock car competitors around, who was able to calculate when to make those daring moves while saving his car for the battles in the end.
As a result, he became a well-liked, popular driver in the stands and garage area for the rest of his career.
It wasn't magic, nor did it happen overnight. Irvan had some growing pains in trying to earn the respect of the garage area. They were all but ready to quit on the driver who messed with the veterans. Eventually, he proved himself without having to change too much of his attitude and style as a racer and a colleague amongst America's finest stock car drivers.
Darrell Waltrip was another brash figure who didn't mind irking the fans and drivers as to who he thought was the best in NASCAR. Back in the 1980s, as Waltrip would put it, he raced "doing whatever it took" to win races.
While he earned three titles, he felt that the victories on the track were somewhat hollow. His rough style as a racer didn't earn him any fans, who weren't afraid to give a piece of their mind (and then some) to the veteran racer.
Perhaps Waltrip's turning point came in the 1983 Daytona 500, when he raced to the line in efforts to get back on the lead lap. Slowed by Dick Brooks, who was preventing the prolific champion from victory, DW's No. 11 Pepsi Chevy Monte Carlo suddenly swerved to the left, spinning wildly into the inside retaining barrier before pit road.
He smashed into the concrete passenger-side first before resting along the frontstretch, all battered up and torn. Miraculously, he survived the incident.
Even so, the crash left quite an impression on Waltrip's mindset as a racer who ruffled the feathers of veteran stars like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.
Some fans felt that Keselowski "had it coming to him." This was after Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, in which his No. 12 Mopar FLO TV Dodge Charger went for a flyer into the frontstretch wall, crushing in the roof and breaking the roll cage. Keselowski would walk out of his car, albeit shaken up and dazed by the prolific incident with Carl Edwards.
No matter whose side you're on in this controversial mess, what we saw on Sunday was perhaps a case of a driver frustrated by an earlier incident involving Keselowski. He felt it was time to speak up for some racers who've been involved in accidents with the 26-year-old Nationwide Series graduate.
That said, there's no winner in this situation. There was no right for Edwards to take out Keselowski in the fashion he did, regardless if the No. 12 Dodge flipped or had stayed on track.
After all, that's not how the good ol' boys did it. No, they duked it out in the track. They traded fists and punches rather than using their cars as a means of "unnecessary roughness."
While Keselowski still has lots to learn, perhaps one way for him to earn the respect of the fans and drivers before the race at Bristol, Tenn. is to "man up" to his mistakes, similar to how his predecessors did years ago. There's nothing more humiliating yet career-changing than to speak up, regardless of whether or not it's your fault.
Won't the real Brad Keselowski please stand up? He doesn't have to change entirely. He can be as stubborn as he wants to be. As long as he can own up to his incidents, the respect label will surely find its way to a young man who has the makings to become quite the figure in NASCAR history.
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