Keselowski on the cusp of big win for Penske, Michigan

Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
  • Brad Keselowski will take a 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson into the season finale at Homestead.
  • Keselowski needs to finish 15th or better at Homestead to win his first Sprint Cup title.
  • It would be the first Sprint Cup title for a Michigan driver and the first for owner Roger Penske.
  • Jot down the name Brad Keselowski. And expect to see him on TV and all over the Internet in the week ahead.

    Keselowski, the tough-as-nails, unflinching NASCAR driver from Rochester Hills, is one race from making sports history in his home state of Michigan.

    Should the hard-charging 28-year-old driver survive a torrid 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup race in south Florida on Sunday afternoon — against some of the most unforgiving drivers in the world — he will become the 2012 champion, the first person born in Michigan to clinch the Cup.

    “Brad will be racing on a wing and a prayer,” said Keselowski’s mother, Kay, from work in downtown Detroit on Monday. “Only God knows what will happen on Sunday. In racing, things can change in a heartbeat. But Brad deserves it, and so does his crew, and Roger Penske. They have worked so hard to win this championship.”.

    Keselowski races for Penske, the legendary team owner from Birmingham, Mich., And needs only to finish 15th or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the last race on the Cup schedule to capture the title.

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    As it stands, Keselowski and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers in contention.

    A title would have special meaning for Penske, too. He has won countless races as a team owner and a record 15 Indianapolis 500s, but the billionaire businessman and driving force behind IndyCar’s Belle Isle Grand Prix has never won a Sprint Cup title.

    In 2010, Keselowski presented Penske with a Nationwide Series championship — the second most prestigious title in NASCAR — but the man known as the Captain and the owner of Penske Racing never has captured NASCAR’s biggest prize in almost 30 years of trying.

    That can change at Homestead, where Keselowski, who drives the No. 2 Dodge, heads Thursday with a 20-point lead over Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports ace.

    “There are no guarantees,” said Keselowski after his sixth-place finish Sunday at Phoenix, in a wild race in which Johnson crashed out and tempers flared between drivers and crews on and off the track.

    “We could go to Homestead and have the same problem (as Jimmie), and Jimmie takes the points lead back over,” Keselowski said. “No guarantees, but (I’m) very proud to have that points lead heading into Homestead.”.

    There are many auto racing people with ties to Detroit who are proud of Keselowski, who began driving quarter midget race cars around age 14 and quickly progressed to running against grown men a few years later in factory stocks at places such as Auto City Speedway in Clio, Dixie Motor Speedway in Birch Run and Toledo Speedway.

    Ron Drager, president of the ARCA racing feeder series and owner of Toledo Speedway, remembers Brad and his older brother Brian and the rest of the Keselowski clan competing at his track, including the boys’ father, Bob, and uncle, Ron, both track champions in their day.

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    “I’m extremely proud of Brad and how far he has elevated himself in this sport,” Drager said Monday from ARCA’s headquarters near Toledo. “He has gotten there through guts and determination and great family values. I knew John Keselowski, Brad’s grandfather, who drove Dodges in the early days at Flat Rock Speedway, and then Bob and Ron. Brad comes from great stock. They weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They worked for every bit of success they got.”.

    The late and much-admired Benny Parsons, who was born in Wilkes County, N.C., In 1941, joined his parents after high school at their new home near 7 Mile and Woodward in the late 1950s and won the Cup title in 1973.

    Parsons was nicknamed “the taxi cab driver from Detroit” because he worked on and occasionally drove cabs owned by his father at his family’s gas station at 6 Mile and Dakota. But Parsons, who died in 2007 at age 68, spent most of his life in the South.

    Parsons’ younger brother, Phil, a former NASCAR driver and race winner and now a TV commentator, believes Benny would be tickled that Keselowski is on the threshold of racing greatness.

    “Benny raced against Ron Keselowski,” said Parsons, 55, on Monday. “He knew the Keselowski family and watched Brad and Brian grow as kids. He knew Brad was a racer’s racer and earned everything he got coming through the ranks. I know Benny would be proud if Brad were to win the Cup championship and join him.”.

    Keselowski, who has won five Sprint Cup races for Penske this season, isn’t jumping the gun in regards to winning the title.

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    “Nothing is over until it’s over,” he said. “We just need to keep our head down and focus on what lays ahead.

    “It’s been a long road to get here, and I thank God it hasn’t been easy. You appreciate it more when you have to work for it.

    “It doesn’t come easy, but I’m thankful with what I’ve got, for how my family has worked their whole lives for us, and for Roger for already letting me live a dream.”.

    Kay, who together with Bob and oldest son Brian co-owns the family’s race team, K Automotive Motorsports — which ran Brad in ARCA and NASCAR Trucks as he came through the ranks — will be at Homestead.

    “I’m booked — I’ll be leaving for Miami after work on Friday,” Kay said.

    “Bob and Brian want to be there, too. I’m very excited, but I don’t want to disrupt Brad’s focus. But I believe in him and what he has always told me. From an early age, you could tell he meant to achieve his goals.”.

    Can Brad win the title and become a Michigan sports legend?

    “I won’t say that,” his mother said. “But I wouldn’t bet against it.”.

    Would success spoil Brad?

    “He’s a very confident and driven young man already,” she said. “Not a person you want to slap for being arrogant, but someone who believes in himself — someone I believe in, too.”.

    Mike Brudenell also writes for the Detroit Free Press.

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