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He may be all of 25 now, but Brad Keselowski is still easily mistaken for being even younger. For one thing, he looks like a gangly kid, his angular features marked by a goofy smile and a goatee that is a futile attempt at manly scruff. In street clothes, usually blue jeans and a white T-shirt, Keselowski appears less like a guy who attends prerace drivers' meetings than one who's on his way to freshman orientation. And there's his white-hot NASCAR career, which to casual observers seemingly began only two years ago.
That's when Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed the virtually unknown Keselowski to drive for his JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series. In the 65 races since, Keselowski has three victories and 33 other top 10 finishes. Even better, in April he won a wild race at Talladega in just his fifth Sprint Cup start. A regular ride in the Big Show seems a certainty, perhaps as early as next season.
It has all happened so fast, this rush from anonymity to potential stardom. Recently, an office assistant at Hendrick Motorsports, which is partnered with Earnhardt's operation, called Keselowski's public relations manager, Martha McGrath, to check if he was old enough to sign for a rental car. "It happens all the time," says McGrath. "A reporter asked Brad a few weeks ago to name something nobody knew about him, and his answer was, 'That I'm 25 and not 18.'"
Perhaps because Keselowski started winning races almost out of the blue, without ever having been tagged as a phenom, there's a general assumption that he's been one all along—only without the hype. In truth, Keselowski's success is nothing like a lightning strike. He has done far more than just trade paint in rising through NASCAR's ranks.
Born into a family that has been racing at one level or another for more than 50 years, he was turning wrenches on his father Bob's cars long before he ever began turning laps in them. The racing business is one of feast or famine, largely dependent on sponsorship. Over the years Brad saw his family's fortunes rise and fall many times, and he learned how to hold on and survive. When Bob's operation, K-Automotive Motorsports, finally collapsed four years ago under the strain of its financial obligations, Keselowski was left without a ride and without prospects. Striking out on his own, he scrounged for opportunities in the Camping World (then Craftsman) Truck and Nationwide (then Busch) series, and wound up driving mostly second-rate machines. "I was a back marker, always bringing up the rear," he says. "I lost about two years of my life in that transition."
But the tenacity he needed to endure the lean times still serves Keselowski well, as illustrated at Talladega. Running in the top five late in the race, he tucked in close behind Carl Edwards's number 99 Ford and, with one lap to go, the pair stormed to the front, past leader Ryan Newman. Exiting Turn 4, Keselowski faked a move to the outside, sliding to the right as if to pass. Edwards tried to block, jerking his car to the outside, and Keselowski then dived to the inside. Edwards swung back to the left to block, but Keselowski had position down low, just above the yellow line that marks the inside of the track. Keselowski knew that the drivers are forbidden to go below the line to make a pass, and he wasn't going to budge. "I had nothing to lose," says Keselowski, who had seen NASCAR take a win away from Regan Smith at Talladega last October for dipping below the yellow line.
The left-rear quarter panel on Edwards's car hit Keselowski's right-front fender, spinning Edwards into the path of Newman. That impact sent Edwards's car flying into the grandstand catch fence, as Keselowski crossed the finish line. "If he drives below the yellow line, he loses the race, so what's a guy to do?" said Edwards afterward. "Brad was doing everything right."
Late in the fall of 2005 the racing team that Bob Keselowski had started 36 years earlier with his older brother, Ron, was in ruins, and he believed he had failed—failed himself and failed his family. A hardscrabble operation from start to finish, K-Automotive, based near the Keselowskis' home in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, had been a fixture on the USAC and ARCA circuits and had even dabbled at the Cup level, with modest success, in the early 1970s. In '95 the team switched full time to NASCAR's truck series, and everyone in the family had their roles. Ron was the crew chief; Bob drove; his wife, Kay (who also worked as a relocation coordinator for a division of GM), kept the books and worked as a spotter; their sons, Brian and Brad, when they were old enough, worked on the pit crew; daughters Ginger, Kathy and Dawn pitched in where they could. Bob always assumed that he would one day pass on the business to his two boys so they could run it themselves or use it as a springboard to bigger things. "If they'd wanted to be lawyers, there's really nothing I could have given them," he once told Kay. "This is all I know."
Brian, the older of the boys by two years, and Brad were wild to race. But while Brian went to school during the week and raced on weekends, Brad accelerated his racing education. He left high school after his freshman year, completed the next two grades on a work-study program in the family's race shop and burned through his senior year in night school, graduating a semester early, in January 2003, so he could follow the team to Daytona.
"He's very analytical," says Kay. "He was always figuring out a different way."