Dustin Long
Monday February 13th, 2012

Brad Keselowski likes it when people bet against him, noting that such predictions "piss you off enough to make you want to go to work." Although Keselowski doesn't seem to lack the drive to succeed, he'll have to look elsewhere for inspiration this season. Expectations are high for the Michigan native who turned 28 on Sunday. And with that comes a different set of pressures.

After overlooking Keselowski last year, many predict he'll make NASCAR's title Chase this year. One preseason publication even picked him to finish second.

Keselowski will get his first chance to show what he can do in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. He'll be among about 30 drivers competing in the non-points event, which serves as a prelude to the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

While Keselowski faced expectations before winning the 2010 Nationwide championship, this will be different. More people are watching. He no longer will be the upstart who unexpectedly challenges the contenders. His Jeremy Lin moment has passed.

Keselowski will tell you that such pressure is nothing compared to what he faced early in his career when he was searching for a ride or trying to keep his family's team afloat. As tough as it was trying to stay in the sport, winning a championship could be a greater challenge. If nothing else, it will demand more of Keselowski.

He seems to be ascending into the role of leader quite well. On stage at last month's media tour with car owner Roger Penske and other key team members, Keselowski provided the final comments. It was something he asked Penske if he could do.

"It takes more than talent to win a championship,'' Keselowski said about being a leader. "The words of three or four people set the path for 300-some employees. As a driver you're one of those three or four people. ... Tim Tebow is not the most talented quarterback in the league, but he has the belief of his players. I think there's a lot of power behind that."

Of course, it takes more than public speaking to be a leader, something Keselowski learned last season.

One key lesson happened, as crew chief Paul Wolfe recalls, at Chicagoland in the opening race of the Chase. After a summer stretch during which Keselowski scored six consecutive top-10 finishes -- and two victories -- the team got off to a slow start in the Chase.

Keselowski fought his car's handling throughout the race. Normally calm on the radio, Keselowski became frustrated and more outspoken for a spell. He recovered to finish fifth on a fuel-mileage gamble, and Wolfe sat down with his driver afterward.

"Pretty much had a heart-to-heart and let him know where I stood as the crew chief of the car and how I expected to be treated and how all the guys expected to be treated that worked on this car," Wolfe said. "I think sometimes you have to have that. I think a lot of times in this sport guys are maybe afraid to stand up for what they're about and all the hard work. Brad does a good job of understanding that there is a lot of hard work and effort that goes into these [cars] and we don't need someone bringing us down."

That was only part of what Wolfe told Keselowski after the race.

"The second part of it was explaining to him the approach we had to the weekend and why maybe we were in the situation we were in," Wolfe said. "We keep that communication line open. I think if you keep that communication open, there's less chance for those blowups to happen and be less productive."

That type of honesty and communication is meaningful to Keselowski.

"I think the important thing is who you surround yourself with," he said. "You can surround yourself with people who will tell you what you want to hear. I don't do that. I try to surround myself with people that are committed to the truth. I think you see that in the way I do things. I don't necessarily tell people what they want to hear."

Episodes such as the one at Chicago are rare for Keselowski. Wolfe praises his leadership and notes he must continue to provide it and motivate the team -- just as Keselowski did when the team started the season poorly before rebounding to win three races.

"I think there's an aspect of staying positive when the team struggles," Wolfe said. "I think you see that a lot. You saw that a lot at the beginning part of the season. Instead of getting down and getting negative, Brad was able to continue to be a motivator to the guys and keep them focused on our goals, and we were able to turn around a terrible start of the season to have a strong run."

That's where the communication with the crew chief becomes critical. Keselowski and Wolfe guided the team to a fifth-place finish in the points. Penske Racing rewarded both with contract extensions in the offseason.

Keselowski seemed poised to challenge for the Cup title when he climbed to third in the points with four races left last year. But things turned late in the race at Martinsville. He was eighth on the final restart, but when cars underneath him made contact, it sent a car into Keselowski's and caused him to spin. NASCAR didn't throw a caution and Keselowski finished 17th.

Both Keselowski and Wolfe said they had to adjust their strategy after that race, which dropped Keselowski to fourth in the points.

"[After] we got kicked that first time, we probably took a step too far out on the ledge to try to get it back, which is what you have to do," Keselowski said. "We could have stayed back and ran a normal approach that would have probably got us a third in the points.

"I wasn't interested in that. Third or fifth, there's maybe a little bit of money difference, but the trophy looks about the same to me. I was interested in doing what we could to catch up. We overstepped it and fell off a couple of races, but it was in an effort to win it and not settle for third."

Keselowski, known for being outspoken (he was fined by NASCAR last year after critical comments regarding fuel injection), isn't afraid to judge himself.

He calls himself a "B-plus driver with A potential." But says, "whether we get there or not depends on [whom] I'm surrounded with and how hard I work at it. I still feel I have areas to work on."

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