Brant James
Wednesday September 2nd, 2009

Brad Keselowski was 80 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., and still couldn't find a place where Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't command the room. Or in this case, deck. It was Keselowski, not his boss and mentor, that actually drove the Navy-sponsored Chevrolet in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. So this visit in May, 2008, to aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt should have been a home game. He knew better. Earnhardt Jr. was the show, the attraction, the one sailors and air bosses packed into hallways and into a crowded galleys to chat with it, to nervously hand a pen and sundry pieces of memorabilia that wouldn't figure to make it aboard a warship.

But Keselowski clearly didn't care. While Earnhardt Jr. dutifully chatted with star-struck seamen and marveled at the massive firepower of the missile he was leaning on in the hangar, Keselowski quietly, intently quizzed radar men about the objects winking on the large round scope. He had more than the requisite, polite number of questions about missile guidance systems and propulsion than would normally be required of the driver. He seemed genuinely interested in the antique book collection the captain kept in his state room. Keselowski was geeked out and elbow deep in this stuff and he was enjoying it. He was soaking it in.

He was preparing for something that wasn't even an option yet. He was Penske material even before he became a Penske driver, and more than a year later he said -- and he might be right -- that he's ready to "get my hands dirty" in going about the business of becoming the first to win a Sprint Cup title for one of motorsports' most respected owners, Roger Penske. He should fit in just fine. He's sponsor-presentable and earnest. He seems genuinely interested in the mundane details that titillate men like Penske and team president Tim Cindric, but often bore other 25 year-olds.

Just 10 races into his Sprint Cup career, he has more wins -- one, this spring at Talladega -- than any of the other drivers that have staffed the third car Penske has tried so hard to establish. Brendan Gaughan had none in 36 starts, all in 2004. Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar series champion for Penske who became the No. 2 driver behind Kurt Busch this season, is winless in 60 starts, but beginning to fulfill the promise for a team that hoped to be at four cars by 2010. David Stremme has not finished better than 13th in trying to replace Ryan Newman in the No. 12 Dodge.

Keselowski, a third-generation racer whom Rick Hendrick hoped to keep in his crowded lineup, can now find his own space. He'll go quip for quip -- at least -- with lead driver and Chase for the Championship contender Kurt Busch. He'll be a little less deadpan than Hornish Jr. And he might just push them all harder.

""I want to be the guy that comes to Penske Racing and gets them their first NASCAR championship," he said. "For everything that's been accomplished here, that's the one thing that's missing. I'm going to put a full effort into being the guy that gets it done." He likely won't miss on the details.

Three questions with 2004 Indianapolis 500-winner Buddy Rice, who has found success after the Indy Racing League in the Grand Am sports car series with Spirit of Daytona Racing. Rice was part of the Rolex 24 at Daytona winner this season.

Q. What knowledge translates from the open-wheel cars to these type of cars? Is there anything counterintuitive between the two cars that makes it more difficult?

A: I think no matter what you drive, the more variety you drive, I think the more complete and a better racecar driver you become. I think that's something, that's what made (Johnny) Rutherford and (A.J.) Foyt, the Unsers, Mario (Andretti) so good. Back then those guys drove almost every single weekend, they drove so many different types of cars.

I think the open-wheel car obviously runs a lot different because of the downforce numbers and the lightness of the car and the size of the tires and stuff. I think one of the biggest things you have to overcome a little bit that you find out is driving the Grand Am car, you have to be a little bit more patient with your inputs and be a little bit more patient with everything you do because of the fact the speeds are down and the car reacts slower, it's heavier. So it takes a little bit.

Q. Are we returning to an era where drivers are going to move around and try different things and see who is very good as an all-around driver?

A: Yeah, I think you'll see it a little bit. But you'll never see it to the levels that it used to because motor racing has become so commercial and driven by the commercial dollar, we've all become specialists to some degree in whatever discipline that we're driving in. We don't get to adventure out very often. It's unfortunate what happened over the weekend. It was nice for Carl Edwards and Marcos Ambrose to run at Montréal (in the Grand Am race last weekend). That was cool. They happened to already be there (for a Nationwide race), worked a deal out, were able to do that. As a general rule, they can't usually adventure out unless the Grand Am cars are running with them. That just happened to be a special fit. Those guys normally run, whether it's trucks, Nationwide, on the same weekend as they run their (Sprint Cup) cars. I think that's where that is at.

Q. Is it your goal to get back into IndyCars?

A: I've had contact with some people they've been inquiring on what I'm doing. I'll just have to wait and see. There's a lot of things happening. I mean, I'm not ruling anything out. Everything is completely wide open. We'll just have to wait and see.

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