Brad Keselowski has always envisioned himself as the successful, tenured company man, the symbol of the franchise that sprays a celebratory beer over his teammates in Victory Lane on Sunday and woos the CEOs paying for it all in a boardroom on Monday.
Throughout modest beginnings in NASCAR racing for small teams and then big opportunities with megateams already employing those types of drivers -- Dale Earnhardt at JR Motorsports, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports -- the 27-year-old waited, watched. Keselowski might have unofficially become that franchise driver last season as he drove through an ankle injury to win two late regular-season races, transforming from afterthought to title contender, all while the tenure of Penske teammate and 2004 series champion Kurt Busch slowly perished.
With Busch now gone and A.J. Allmendinger replacing him, Keselowski enters just his third full Sprint Cup season as the most tenured and most successful driver for a Sprint Cup team that put two employees in the Chase for just the second time last season. He has the opportunity to be what Rusty Wallace was at Penske for 15 years, and what Busch's ill humors prevented him from fully becoming in six.
Keselowski is thrilled at the prospect.
"It's a dream come true to try and be that guy," Keselowski said in a phone interview with SI.com "I've aspired to be that person all my life and it's a very unique, incredible, name-your-adjective-description to be that guy."
Penske president Tim Cindric hesitates to declare Keselowski the figurehead of their Sprint Cup program, perhaps to buffer him from what will be already-heightened expectations. Though Keselowski won a Nationwide title in 2010, he has just 89 Sprint Cup starts, 63 fewer than the 30-year-old Allmendinger.
"It's better put to say he's the more accomplished guy," Cindric said of Keselowski, "and with that comes the respect of having that success. But he's certainly earned that situation, and with A.J. coming in I think A.J. has a very similar expectation as to what Brad did when Brad came in. There's an expectation to realize his potential."
Keselowski understands, he said, that with the role, stated or otherwise, comes greater responsibility.
"You have to win on the racetrack. You have to win in the board room," said Keselowski, who enters his third season with Penske. "You have to win in the TV briefs. You have to win in all aspects to be that guy. I feel good about what we've done in the past to kind of prove I could be that person. I know past success doesn't guarantee future success, so I don't want to rely on that."
And he doesn't rely on advice, he said, from drivers currently in that situation.
"I don't ask for a lot of advice," he said, "because those people that are in that position, they're not looking to really share. But I'm always watching."
Keselowski has won Cup races -- three with Penske last season -- over parts of four seasons and assumed the role of Miller Lite pitchman -- like Wallace, who served as the spokesperson from 1997 to 2005 -- from Busch when Shell-Pennzoil joined Penske's sponsor lineup last year. One of the sport's refreshingly and as-yet-unhomogenized quotes, Keselowski expresses opinions while his peers have recessed, and excels in the intangibles, last year holding a press conference on Twitter in which he answered questions for hours. His tweeted photographs of his battered ankle were a grotesque sensation.
Ironically, it was Busch's opinion that provided the final impetus for his departure, after a pointed exchange with ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November was widely viewed on the internet.
Though Cindric said the organization attempts to insulate drivers from outside distractions, he admitted Keselowski was certainly well-informed of Busch's misadventures. Keselowski said of the near-season-long string of incidents with Busch and his team "there's no way for that not to affect you," but said Busch helped him as a teammate.
"I think no matter what anyone says, your teammate always affects you for good or bad," Keselowski said. "Kurt did a lot of good things for me that helped me get to where I'm at right now, and I think he was a really good teammate to me. He probably didn't get the credit he deserved for it."
Keselowski may miss Busch more than he realizes. Cindric said Busch's intangible value to his young teammate was providing a benchmark.
"I think the one thing Brad realizes is there are some guys that want to be the only successful guy within a team because maybe it gives them some job security or more confidence," Cindric said. "But Brad realizes the importance of having a successful teammate. I truly believe he wants somebody to continue to push him. He knows that Kurt was one of those guys. He knew he had a rabbit to chase and someone to learn from. He wants to see that in A.J. as well and I think he will do everything he can to see A.J. succeed."
Allmendinger, although improving on the Cup level since transitioning from open-wheel racing in 2006, is winless in the Cup series over 152 starts, his best finish (third) coming in the 2009 Daytona 500.
"Whether there is someone else around you or not, you're just sink or swim," Keselowski said. "I'm ready for the challenge."
His combination of grit and performance suggested such last year. After a 35th-place finish at Loudon, N.H., on July 17, Keselowski sat 23rd in the Sprint Cup driver standings. He rebounded a week later, finishing ninth at Indianapolis, but sustained a broken left ankle in a testing crash at Road Atlanta in early August, putting his season in peril. Keselowski, however, mitigated pain and swelling to win at Pocono just days after the crash and went on to produce another win and four consecutive top-fives. Among those top-fives was a runner-up finish on the road course at Watkins Glen that amazed his peers, considering the amount of footwork required. The ankle, he said, remains sore, but Keselowski went on to capture a wild-card berth and was as high as third in the standings with four races left.
"It had been building all along," Keselowski said of his burst, "kind of like if you look at the stock market, and you look at a stock that takes off, you probably say, 'Well, there were some telltale signs before it took off.' I think if you look at a couple of our runs we had, we ran really well at Kentucky [seventh, led 79 laps] and Indianapolis before that and ran really well at Kansas where we won with the fuel, but we were still running well. We're just starting to build some momentum, but we caught a lot of bad breaks or things didn't go our way when we were performing well."
Keselowski's prominent role at Penske and his success last season will create hefty expectations for the first time in his Cup career. That's all part of the sinking or the swimming, he said.
"There's only so much you can do about expectations. You try to kindle them down a lot bit," he said. "My boss would tell you, you try to under-sell and over-deliver."
He'll do that from the forefront beginning very soon.