Brad Keselowski does a bi-weekly diary for SI.com. Heading to Watkins Glen this weekend, he looks back on Elliott Sadler's wild wreck and gives his take on what the track needs to do to improve safety. Also in this latest edition: why he supports secret driver fines, his thoughts on upcoming schedule changes, and why he never got along with ... Madonna?
Let's talk about Pocono. You struggled early, but recovered late for your third straight top-20 finish.
Well, our car at the beginning of the race was woefully bad. It looked like it was going to be a bad race, but then in the middle segment we made a few adjustments, and the car took off. We hit on something, and that was rather encouraging. That's always a good sign when you can make your car better in the middle of the race. And then, I really thought we were a top-15 car, maybe a top-10 car at that point, but I sped down pit road and lost a lap on the penalty. We recovered from that to get the wave around, but about that time the rain came in, the clouds came in, the track conditions changed and, lo and behold, we were crazy loose.
So, the day went through different segments. We were the best right in the middle, and kind of unfortunate that we weren't able to capitalize on all of it. But we did get a decent finish out of what we had, and now we have to try and move on.
Sunday's race was marred by Elliott Sadler's serious wreck. Was Pocono ever a safety concern for you before that incident, and do you think SAFER barriers will do enough to fix any flaws the track may have with their safety?
What I didn't see was Elliott's wreck [as it happened]. What I did see is the most dangerous racetrack in NASCAR. It's one that desperately needs to upgrade their facilities if we're going to justify two major sanctioned races at it.
It seems to be the challenge in our sport, is building safety without affecting some of the appeal of the racing. We straddle a line there, and clearly Pocono is way past the point as far as being safe and having a place where we can feel good, as drivers, being able to push our cars to the limit without hurting ourselves or someone else.
What's wrong with the track the most? Is it where Elliott hit...
Well, a lot of people don't like Pocono, whether it's the layout or whatever. I actually think it's neat the way it is. But there are several features on it that just haven't been updated. It's the lack of updates that are most concerning. More than anything else, you look at the guardrail on the inside, the angles on the wall, the grass on the backstretch, which is an extremely fast backstretch; all things we've improved at other racetracks.. We just haven't updated the track accordingly.
It's clear teammate Kurt Busch isn't getting along with Jimmie Johnson. Any advice for him based on your own feuds with drivers through the years?
Ha! I ask Kurt how to handle my feuds, so I don't think he's going to come asking me. As for advice, I would tell Kurt to make sure the fight is a fight worth fighting. So fight it honorably, but don't run away from it. But I think this feud is something that could pop up at any given moment, and it will again.
The last few weeks, we've seen two-tire pit stops and track position win the race over four. When you're coming down the stretch, which would you rather have on your final stop?
It's very race dependent. That's where I think a lot of people don't understand -- I don't necessarily believe two or four tires win races. That's a common misconception. What wins races is how close you are to the front with whatever strategy you are using, or how many cars you have facing you with the other strategy. Essentially, what that means is if Juan Pablo Montoya pulls off pit road at Indianapolis third, on four tires, and there's only two cars in front of him on two tires, he wins the race. Same thing with Jeff Gordon at Pocono.
To reverse that fortune, if Jeff or Juan pulls off the racetrack with two tires, and only have one or two other cars around them with two tires on, they don't win the race. The perfect example of that is Las Vegas. Steve Letarte called Jeff Gordon in for two tires. Now, that was the right call if four or five other cars do it, too. But they didn't. Only he did it. He didn't have the gap, he didn't have the buffer, and he lost the race. So whether you take two or four is not important. It's the end result of the situation that gets you there; how many cars are on your strategy and how many cars aren't. And that's something you can't control. So there is no right or wrong call. You're essentially relying on your competitors to make the same decisions you do, and that's very hard to know.
Are you guys at the point where you don't want to be in the lead down the stretch like that? Or do you want to be in the lead, be the one controlling the strategy, even though you lose more often than not?
Well, the leader's the most vulnerable position on the racetrack, without a doubt. But he still has the most advantageous spot. If you have good pit strategy, and you have a crew chief capable of making the right calls, and being very agile with them, essentially picking up on when everyone else is doing and then protecting yourself, then you're OK. But there is no spot that guarantees you victory until the checkered flag; so the best one during the race still and will always be the leader.
Reports of secret driver fines broke last week, with both Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman getting fined up to $50,000 for comments detrimental to the sport. What's your opinion on whether NASCAR should have the authority to pursue these fines, and if keeping them private is the right thing to do?
Well, I'm very supportive of the fines. Not because it's the company line from NASCAR, but because if you look through it, and really dissect and understand the motivation behind people who say things that give the impression the sport isn't worth following ... I think, really, what they're doing is creating an excuse for themselves. I think when people get to the racetrack and say, "That race wasn't worth following, such and such happened and that's why they finished bad," really what they're saying to me is, "We're running bad and it's not my fault. It's the sport's fault."
[NASCAR chairman/CEO] Brian France, at the start of the year, we sat around the roundtable and talked about this. Him, the other Penske drivers, and Roger [Penske], and Walt [Czarneck, vice chairman of Penske Racing], and so forth. He uses his restaurant analogy, but he also uses this other analogy. We all come to the racetrack with different setups, and let's say the tires that Goodyear puts us on, we're anticipating it's going to have very little grip... and it has a lot of grip. And so we built a setup around it, we run terribly, and then we get out of the car and blame the tire.
Well, the tire is what the tire is. We made a bad call around what the tires are, and so now that person gets out of the car and badmouths the tire. Why is the tire the reason you ran badly? Everybody had the same opportunity to capitalize on it. And instead, we get out of the car and you blame it on something that really wasn't relevant just so you don't look bad. Just to make an excuse ... and in the process, you bring down the whole sport one notch just to raise yourself up one notch. That's just not cool; it's bad for everyone, and everybody suffers from that except for that one particular driver who's getting the short-term gain. And I think it's hard for the drivers who have had those issues of speaking their mind; really, they're bringing down the whole sport. It's the same sport they're making a living off of; and in reality, I don't think they're really mad at the sport. I think they're putting out an excuse book damaging the sport while saying that.
How about the private vs. public thing? Good for the sport to keep secrets like that?
Yeah, there's no good way of handling that situation. You look at the NBA and other sports that have gone through the same thing, who fine coaches or players who make disparaging remarks, and essentially what you get out of it is more publicity to the negative remarks. So I can understand NASCAR's reason for not wanting to publicize it; obviously, it still got publicized. So, I feel like they made the right move, they just didn't do a good enough job of making sure it didn't go public.
You guys were at Iowa on Saturday for the Nationwide race and the track was a true sellout. Do you think that facility deserves a Cup date down the line, and what do you think they're doing that other venues on our circuit can learn from?
Well, they have a natural business advantage in several key areas. One, the owners of that track, all they worry about is Iowa Speedway [the track is independently owned, unlike ISC and SMI [who control the majority of Cup tracks across the country]. So they really understand their brand, really understand their customer, the people they're around. And they cater to them. That's a natural advantage. The other one is that it's a fresh market. It always helps. It's a fresh new track, new concept, new idea, so that community ... that's going to help ticket sales. But they just do a really good job of taking advantage of what they have to sell.
Infineon was a bit of a learning experience for you on a road course. What types of things have you done to prep for Watkins Glen and learn from those mistakes?
Just getting more seat time makes you better. I'm working on it, did some studying, and that's really all I care to share about that. Not going to give my secrets away...
A report popped up this week saying Brett Favre is going to retire again. What's your position on multiple retirements in sports, and do you have a problem with all these athletes saying they're done only to come back six months later? You had a similar situation at Hendrick with Mark Martin changing his mind.
In any sport, to me it's all about making a decision and sticking to it. Brett Favre, he's good enough at what he does to have a draw and a demand ... and it's a shame he uses that to his advantage in that way.. That being said, I'm not close to my retirement age yet so I don't fully understand how hard it is to walk away from something you love. It can't be easy.
Do you feel Mark was any different?
Not really. Their situations are very similar. Purely from numbers , though, they are both still at the top of their games. And that's what makes it hard for the organizations. If they are has-beens the teams could make that decision for them but the fact is they still give them an excellent opportunity to win.
Madonna. SPIN HER. Well, you know she's from Rochester Hills, my hometown. She went to the same high school I did. But I'm not a big fan. I don't know ... something about turning your back on where you're from turned me off on her at an early age.
Rosie O'Donnell. SPIN HER. I don't really have anything nice to say, so I won't say anything at all.
Today's Topic: Tracks
RING ME UP: You have fun as a driver anywhere you run well at. For me, there's been a few select tracks I've really had a lot of success; we spoke about Iowa, that's one of those tracks. Bristol has got to be on the top of that list. I enjoy going there, the atmosphere ... under the lights, you really feel like you are the show.
I LOST THE NUMBER: Probably the opposite of that would be Pocono. Purely from a safety standpoint..
Take us around a lap at Watkins Glen.
It's a high-speed road course. It's really an oval-racer's road course. Forward bite is not a huge issue there, so you see very high speeds. Down the backstretch, we get anywhere from 180 to 185 miles an hour.
Let me take you for a ride. You enter Turn 1, which is one of the toughest corners in racing, because it's a downhill. It's very hard to stop the car, and you have the use of gravity against you, which is trying to speed the car up. It's also a very fast right-hander that requires a lot of arc to the entry. Because of that, it's very easy for somebody to try and outbrake you, take your line away and call it a day. So it can be kind of a disaster corner, you have to be smooth through it and very aware of who's around you.
You downshift from third to second going into Turn 1, starting out in third gear at the start/finish line. You downshift to second, apex as late as possible and try to carry as much speed up off. You grab third gear almost immediately upon exiting the corner, and carry that down into the esses. The [S-curves] are two of the trickiest, fastest corners in racing just off of feel. Turn 2 is a very high-banked, right-hander where you carry a lot of speed through it and just barely lift. Turn 3 is a left-hander of the [S-curves], where you're going to have good RPMs to carry a lot of speed off. You'll lift just barely for Turn 3, but then get back to full throttle very quickly. A very sharp, abrupt corner is next, where you're carrying speed to the point you end up right against the guardrail. It feels very similar to Darlington and how close you are to the wall there on both entry and exit. Then, you carry that run off of Turn 4, and grab fourth gear upon the exit. You accelerate flat out, until the bus stop or the inner loop, as people call it. You switch to third gear, then to second; there's very nice brake markers there, and it's a nice place to outbrake someone and a great passing zone.
You also use a lot of curbing -- really, it's the only section of the track where you use the curb. So you jump the car, try and lay it smoothly on the ground, hit the throttle out to the carousel, which is the next section: Turn 5. Turn 5 is a high, high-speed right-hander with lots of banking, also downhill. The car naturally accelerates while going through there. And it's a very, very strange feeling to drive on a right-hander that's that fast. It's essentially faster than half the racetracks we go through on the Cup circuit in the corner -- but it's a right-hander. So it's a different, unnatural feeling. You're in second gear through here -- you grab third gear on exit. You drive all the way up to the edge of the turn on exit. This is where we've seen the big wrecks; it's very hairy, a very dangerous-feeling corner that puts you on the edge of your seat.
So you carry your speed through there, then the next corner -- turn 10 -- is a high-speed left-hander. Some guys will shift into third in between, some guys will shift into fourth, and then double downshift from fourth, to third, to second in that left-hander. It's a very high-speed left-hander, and the car doesn't really want to turn left because it's better to the right. That can be a tricky corner. So you roll through the corner there, late apex, use as little brake as possible and then throttle hard -- but not too hard, because you've got to get from the right side of the racetrack quickly to the left for Turn 11, which is another very high speed, second gear corner. And you carry that speed and that run up off, over the rumble strips on exit, then down to the start/finish line where you'll shift into third gear and complete a lap.