As the Chase hits the halfway mark, it might as well be named the Hendrick Memorial Parade. Their cars hold the top three spots in points, with Tony Stewart's HMS-supported Chevy a solid fourth. Barring a major catastrophe, driver Jimmie Johnson will win his fourth straight title -- which would be the ninth overall for the organization since 1995. It's the type of dominance that should keep anyone signing on the dotted line for years to come, right?
Except if you're Brad Keselowski.
The Nationwide Series driver and top-level prospect will make this offseason's biggest switch, leaving the JR Motorsports/Hendrick cocoon in favor of a full-time Sprint Cup ride for Roger Penske. It's a decision that left many critics scratching their heads -- after all, why leave a team that's already at the top of its game? But when you're a 25-year-old prodigy who won in just your fifth Cup Series start, chances are you don't care much about what other people think.
"I know more pieces of the puzzle than anyone else does," he says of a departure that raised eyebrows, considering his soon-to-be-former car owner was keeping a full-time ride open for when Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin scaled back. "Unfortunately, I can't unveil those pieces. That makes that decision a smarter decision than what some might think."
Many believe the move may be only temporary, as Hendrick himself declared in August. "Wherever he goes, he'll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back." The owner told ESPN, "I've said all along I want him to have the best opportunity, and we have several options, but the one thing I told him is, 'Look, if you decide to do something different, I want you to have the best opportunity, and whoever you go to drive for just tell them don't get pissed off when I come after you.' "
But for now, the bottom line is he'll be racing somewhere else next season, finishing up his Hendrick tenure with a 12th at Charlotte, his fifth top 15 in 11 Cup starts this year (in comparison, Rookie of the Year Joey Logano has just 11 in 31 starts, respectively.)
Add in that Talladega upset, where Keselowski sent Carl Edwards flipping en route to the checkered flag, and this rookie's earned the label of a hot young talent to watch in 2010. And with Penske, it's not like he's taking a major step backwards in equipment. After all, it's an organization whose chassis are currently second-best on the circuit (driver Kurt Busch is fifth in points), and the lone organization Dodge will focus its funding on after losing Richard Petty Motorsports to Ford.
Yet after three years of working with Hendrick equipment, Keselowski demands excellence. That's why it's no surprise the young rookie told Penske he needed at least 100 people, if not more, to compete against the Hendrick juggernaut after touring the shop and telling his car owner they don't yet have the depth to succeed.
"We've both got to change," the driver says unequivocally, wielding power most rookies don't ever get when dealing with a 72-year-old racing legend like Penske. "We're going to have to work together, and it can't be on one end. It can't be where I change and adapt to them, and it can't be where they adapt to me. We have to be in the middle and work together that way."
Where Keselowski hopes to make the most impact is behind the walls of the Penske shop. Known to run a tight ship, the open-wheel owner hasn't exactly had perfect success in getting teams to work together (Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman were the greatest example, teammates who barely spoke to each other during their five years under the same roof). But after two years of watching the demeanor of superstars Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and others, he's convinced that proper teamwork with Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish will be the one and only way to catch up.
After all, it's what he learned from watching the Hendrick stars. "Their teams believe in them," Keselowski says. "It's really awe-inspiring. I think of the 24 and the 48 as being like Santa's Little Helper's shop. Everybody works together, singing songs while they're working."
"The code and the morals that goes along with making that happen, I think that's probably the biggest thing I'll take from [my years there]."
That ethical blueprint makes the Hendrick teams themselves an open book off the racetrack. But perhaps the one place Keselowski always differed from those teammates was with his fiery, independent style on it. Gaining a reputation as one of NASCAR's most aggressive drivers, he's been known not to take his foot off the gas in any situation. That led to perhaps the biggest break of his career: holding his line instead of backing off left Edwards in the catchfence while Keselowski wound up in Cup Series Victory Lane this April, cementing his status as the sport's top prospect. But it's also left him embroiled in controversy, with a late-race accident with Denny Hamlin in a Nationwide race at Dover followed up by a verbal warning from NASCAR at Kansas, where Keselowski was beating and banging in the Cup race with Chasers as if his own championship bid was on the line.
"Brad Keselowski is a young driver with limited experience as it relates to Sprint Cup Series racing," officials said after he roughed up Juan Pablo Montoya, among others. "In NASCAR's opinion, there were several instances in the early stages of a 400-mile race that he was being overly aggressive, and NASCAR communicated that to his team."
But it's not just officials sounding the alarm, as his peers also wonder if the young driver should be dialing it back a bit on the race track.
"Brad's an amazing racer. He's got a ton of talent, and he's out there trying to prove himself every week," Hamlin said. "But he's not doing anyone any good if a wreck happens with one of the Chasers."
As for Hamlin, there's no love lost between the two as he got involved with a post-race shoving match with Keselowski after his wreck. Last weekend at Charlotte, Hamlin said winning the respect of your competitors is critical as you move on to the next level.
"I've communicated through text message, phone calls, and I've said, 'What do you expect from me as a competitor?'" he says about the proper way to approach conflict -- something Keselowski never did with him, as both sides have yet to issue an apology after their latest spat. "I think that's important for young guys. It's why my rookie year went as smooth as it did, because I really didn't ruffle any feathers. They can either learn the hard way, or they can go out and try to find themselves by reaching out to the veterans and figuring it out."
But Keselowski says the elder star shouldn't be holding his breath for a call.
"I got poor phone service," Keselowski joked in response to those methods. "I'm looking forward to changing that with my sponsor for next year. Maybe then I can make one of them phone calls."
"[Seriously], if you're right, you're right. If you're wrong, you're wrong. And if I'm wrong, I'll call. If I'm not, I won't. [Most of the time], I don't feel like I'm wrong."
And so Keselowski trudges ahead, carving his own path of taking no quarter in a series in which other drivers fear to tread. It's an old school mentality in what he says has become a "new school" brand of competition -- a change he claims is due to a sudden influx of open-wheel drivers crossing over into the sport.
"This used to be a deal where all the race car drivers who didn't want to race side-by-side went to IndyCar World," he said. "And all the race car drivers that got some dirt under their fingernails, raced hard, dug hard, ran hard, went to stock car racing. [But] when the IndyCar Series went away, for some reason NASCAR racing picked up all the open-wheel race car drivers, that don't want to get their hands dirty, that aren't engaged in the lifestyle of the sport. So they're naturally against conflict."
"Well, I grew up in the sport, where I grew up in it in my level was the hands dirty, if you gotta fight you gotta fight type of world. So there's a large difference between us two groups, and there's only a few of us that are in [the stock car one]. I look and I look at the guys like Marcos Ambrose, I put him in my group. But there's a large part of the group [competing today] that's not. And it's changed some of the makeup of the sport."
Such remarks show the differences between the driver and his new car owner, who is the winner of more Indy 500 championships than anyone else. Will teacher and student be able to get along?
"So far, that's gone very, very well," Keselowski said. "I turned him down [for a ride] probably four or five times. And every time I did, he came back. How could I say no to somebody that wants me this bad? That's going to tell me how well it's going to work in the future, how well it's working right now to where we're going to be able to work together, and I'm going to be able to come to him and say, 'This is what we need.' And that's what we've got."
In the meantime, he'll go back to spending the rest of the season gaining as much experience as he can from the team that molded him (JR Motorsports) and a crew chief in Tony Eury, Sr. who's one of the few people always capable of keeping his ego in check.
"I never think of myself as only having one thing to improve on, ever," Keselowski says humbly, looking forward to the next step. "I always think of myself as a constantly evolving artist. And you think, what do I need to do better? Well I could restart better, I could do a little better at giving feedback, I could do a little better at engaging my team. But those are always going to be there, whether you're a rookie or not. It's like you start out a six out of 10, and maybe two years from now I'm an eight out of 10, but I'm still not a 10."
"So I'm still going to continue to engage those things and face those problems, whether I'm a rookie or not."
It's that passion to get better that gives an athlete his best chance to succeed. And if the pieces fall into place, it could make Hendrick's No. 1 enemy in next year's Chase the very driver it helped create.