HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- He walked alone on the frontstretch of Homestead-Miami Speedway, squinting into the bright South Florida sun and gazing into the towering grandstands, which stretched high into the blue, breezy sky. The most important race of Brad Keselowski's life was 45 minutes away, and here he was flashing the thumbs up sign to anyone who looked his way. He was a picture of confidence.
Nearby, Jimmie Johnson stood next to his No. 48 Chevy and chatted with his crew chief, Chad Knaus. They have been the dominating duo in NASCAR this century, winning five of the last six championships. With the 2012 title still within reach, Johnson had spent the days leading up to the race trying to rattle the 28-year-old Keselowski, consistently reminding him that he's never endured the pressure of racing for a Cup title.
"None of what Jimmie says matters," Keselowski said three days before the season finale as he sat in a windowless conference room in the Homestead infield and ate a cheeseburger. "None of it. I assure you I'll race just like I always do. I'm very confident that we'll take care of business."
And so he did. Keselowski, who entered Homestead with a 20-point lead in the standings over Mr. Five Time, only needed to finish 15th or better to clinch the championship. On Sunday, he cautiously motored around the 1.5-mile oval for the entire 400 miles, never putting his No. 2 Dodge in a precarious position. Johnson appeared to have a genuine shot of overtaking Keselowski because he was on a different late-race fuel strategy -- Johnson was going to have to pit one less time than Keselowski -- but then the engine in his No. 48 blew after 224 laps. While Johnson came in 36th, Keselowski finished 15th to win his first Cup title.
"This is as sweet as life gets, to know that you have people around you that can make up for you when you make mistakes," Keselowski said after the race. "I know that when I make them, I've got people that got my back."
It took Keselowski only 125 career starts in the Cup series to capture the championship, the fewest since Jeff Gordon in 1995 (93 starts). It was the also the first NASCAR championship for owner Roger Penske, who began racing in the sport in 1972. Considering who Keselowski beat and how his team is half the size of Johnson's, this must be considered one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, the motor sports equivalent of Buster Douglas taking down Mike Tyson.
"Brad's a calculating driver," Penske said. "He's smart. I think his windshield is much wider than many of the [other] drivers. He's seeing what's going on ... He's a thinking man's driver."
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Last Thursday afternoon, on a balmy South Florida day, Bob Keselowski sat outside his motor coach parked near Turn 3 at Homestead and remembered the first time he realized his youngest child had a gift. Brad was 15 years old -- "But he looked 10," says Bob -- and had entered a race at Auto City Speedway near Flint, Mich. This was Brad's first start at the local dirt track and he was quickly lapped. When the leader, who was a local racing legend, lapped Brad a second time, young Keselowski was able to stay on his bumper for 25 straight laps. "Just like that, the light went on for Brad and he figured something out," Bob says. "All he's ever wanted to do is a be a racer and I told him at a young age that racing isn't all fun. It's work and you have to treat it seriously. He has, and that's why all of his success doesn't surprise me. Not even a little."
Keselowski was virtually born to race. His family ran a small race team out of a 15,000-square-foot shop in Rochester, Mich. In 1989 his father won the championship in the ARCA series --the triple-A of NASCAR -- and in 1997 he took a checkered flag in a truck series race.
Little Brad did everything on his father's team, from washing the car to helping build the engine and chassis to spotting, and this was his automotive education. If he wasn't in the shop, he'd be on his go-cart and turning laps around the outside of the building. Even in snow, even in darkness, Brad would be on that cart learning how to drive.
His passion for the sport was borderline obsessive. He constantly watched old races -- analyzing how drivers attacked different tracks, what lines they used, how they reacted to different situations -- and he put a video camera in the cockpit of his own racecar. After every race at his local track, he'd rewind the tape from his in-car camera and try to determine what he could have done better.
On the track as a teenager he made few friends. "He beat up on these older farm boys during the race and then afterward they'd want to beat up on Brad," says his father. Adds his sister Dawn, who is nine years older, "One of the reasons I went to those races every week was to look out for Brad. It could get a little scary."
The plan Bob Keselowski envisioned for Brad and his older brother. Brian. was for them to one day take over the family business and compete in the truck series. But in 2007, in a floundering economy, the Keselowskis filed for bankruptcy and shuttered their family shop. Brad, who was trying to land a fulltime ride in the Nationwide Series, routinely had his credit card rejected when he'd check into hotels. "That was the low point, not only for me, but my entire family," Keselowski says. "It was a dark time."
Keselowski's favorite pastime is to play computer racing simulation games. "That's really how I developed my car control," he says. Another avid computer racing player is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two frequently raced each other on-line -- Brad from his home in Michigan, Earnhardt from his mansion in North Carolina -- and they finally met in 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Keselowski was competing in the Nationwide Series. They struck up a friendship and Earnhardt eventually offered Keselowski a fulltime Nationwide ride for his team, JR Motorsports, for the 2008 season. Keselowski won two races in '08 and in '09 made 15 starts in the Cup series for three owners. With the money he won, he paid off his family's debt.
In just his fifth start at NASCAR's highest level, Keselowski sent a powerful message to the garage. On April 26, 2009, at Talladega Superspeedway, he showed that he had the one thing that can't be taught: guts. Hurtling toward the finish line in second place, he held his ground on the low line as Carl Edwards tried to block him. The fresh-faced Keselowski wasn't intimidated. Even though he knew Edwards was going to wreck, he maintained his line and didn't lift off the accelerator. Edwards wound up sailing into the catch fence in of the most spectacular crashes in NASCAR history.
"It's a give-and-take sport and as races go on, it's a challenge of who is going to lift and who is not," Keselowski said after that race. "I'm sure Carl felt like I would let him in even if I was there, and I was not gonna. It's a test of character." Even though seven people in the grandstands sustained injuries as a result of the debris coming off Edwards' car, Keselowski certainly passed the test.
"Brad has matured a ton since that race at Talladega," says Edwards. "He was incredibly aggressive when he first got to the Cup level, but since then he's really become a smart racer. He's grown up and isn't reckless. He's going to be a force for years to come."
Keselowski passed another test in 2011 after he shattered his left ankle when he crashed into a wall at 100 mph at a test session at Road Atlanta. Instead of sitting out a few races, Keselowski -- in a gritty, pain-inducing performance -- took the checkered flag at Pocono Raceway just four days after breaking his ankle. More significant, he won over his team. "That's when our race team really started coming together," says Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's crew chief. "Our march toward a championship can be traced back to that day." Keselowski has been a different driver since that accident at Road Atlanta. Before the wreck he was 21st in the standings; he finished the 2011 season fifth in points, seemingly gaining speed with every lap.
This year Keselowski famously tweeted during a red-flag delay in the Daytona 500 (he picked up more than 100,000 followers that night) and won three regular-season races, but he generally was regarded in the garage as one of the longest shots in the Chase. After all, among the 12 Chasers, he had the third-worst career average finish at all the Chase tracks (17.4); Johnson had the best (10.1).
But like Tony Stewart in 2011, when Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races, Keselowski was nearly flawless during the playoff stretch. He won two races, never came in lower than 15th, and topped his career average finish at every playoff track. Driving for a team that only has two cars and going against a four-car operation in Hendrick Motorsports, Keselowski took down a five-time champion who had never lost a championship when he held the points lead with three races left, which Johnson did this autumn.
"We plan on contending for many more championships," Keselowski said. "Our team is built to last."
No question, Keselowski's future is filled with promise. He became only the third driver in NASCAR history to win a title in his third full season (joining Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon) and next season all the key personnel will return to the No. 2 team. Indeed, as Keselowski walked through the dark Homestead infield late on Sunday evening, with his iPhone in his hands and a party already raging in his motor coach, the moment felt more like the beginning of something big rather than the end of a season.