Brad Keselowski spoke as if he had just listened to the Lee Ann Womack country classic “I Hope You Dance” 20 times in a row before speaking with Newsday earlier this year.
The start of the song goes, “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,” and 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champ Keselowski was expressing childlike amazement over his then-impending induction into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
“Are you Polish?” Keselowski asked while talking giddily about being included in a Hall that inducted Alan Kulwicki back in 2001.
Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship with his self-owned team, an outfit so underfunded that the “TH” was taken off the front bumper of his Hooters Ford, giving his team the “UNDERBIRD” moniker. After building the team, he received offers to drive for others prior to his title run, but as Kulwicki said back in the day, "By the time I got the offers, I had so much invested in this team, I didn't want to give up on it."
For Kulwicki, a title won any other way just wouldn’t have been nearly as fulfilling.
“Alan had such an interesting story,” Keselowski said of Kulwicki, who was killed at age 38 the year after his championship, along with four others, in a plane crash on the way to a race at Bristol. “He was definitely known for doing things his own way. Maybe it’s a Polish gene because I think I do the same. But I really enjoy doing things my own way. It’s a lot more fun.”
For a time, it seemed as if Keselowski doing things his own way would lead to more trouble than fun. He was in NASCAR’s crosshairs in April after saying the governing body was unfairly targeting Penske Racing. His post-race rant came after the Texas race, an event in which his and teammate Joey Logano’s cars had parts confiscated by NASCAR on race day. (Penalties levied by NASCAR the following week were later reduced on appeal.)
In June, he drew the ire of Toyota-powered Joe Gibbs Racing and Chevrolet staple Hendrick Motorsports, telling USA Today those teams had a habit of “stealing” information by outbidding Ford teams to take their employees.
“I think it’s natural to have moments when you’re like, ‘Uh, I could have done that better,’” Keselowski said to Newsday -- ironically just before his Gibbs/Hendrick comments -- of his outspoken nature. “I have no shortage of those.”
But on Monday evening, when Michael Waltrip Racing was assessed historic penalties by NASCAR for manipulating the results of Saturday’s Richmond race, two other Keselowski moments came to mind.
The first was after last year’s penultimate race at Phoenix. Jimmie Johnson hit the wall in the second half of the race, and when Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked championship contender Clint Bowyer in the final laps to settle some perceived on-track disrespect, Keselowski was all but assured the title.
Keselowski could have come into the post-race press conference sporting a Cheshire grin to go along with his good fortune. Instead, he offered an expletive-filled tirade over racing that he was “ashamed” of. He added that the passion to win has to be balanced with drivers having enough respect for each other to put on the right kind of show for the fans.
Then last week at Richmond, with his chance to make the Chase and defend his title on life support, Keselowski was asked if he’d take another driver out to get a Chase spot. He said if he were leading the race and somebody hit him to pass him he’d happily return the favor to win.
But when pressed on what exactly he’d be willing to do to get a Chase spot, he added, “My career is dictated by much more than this weekend. I plan on running in this sport for a very long time… sacrificing code and morals that it takes to be successful for a long time for one weekend, you know, that seems very nearsighted.”
Keselowski didn’t make the Chase. But by Monday night, his views seemed downright prophetic.